National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
The Poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Nationality is a good thing to a certain extent, but universality is better. All that is best in the great poets of all countries is not what is national in them, but what is universal.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1855 (Photo courtesy the Longfellow National Historic Site)

The writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the six Discussion Questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are interesting and specific. Other ideas for essays are provided below.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis—that is, an argument or interpretation—about the poem or poems in question. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons to support its conclusion. The thesis and supporting evidence should be backed by references to the text.

  1. Some of Longfellow’s poetry contains allusions to his life, but Longfellow remained skeptical of poetry as a vehicle for self-revelation and of poems written in first-person. In a letter, he once called “Ii” the “objectionable pronoun.” Explain why Longfellow might make this statement. In your essay, determine whether Longfellow’s poems are or are not biographical. If you believe they are biographical, explain how Longfellow might defend his statement.
  2. The sonnets “Mezzo Cammin” and “The Cross of Snow” end with images of darkness and ambiguity—atypical characteristics for Longfellow’s poetry. In “Mezzo Cammin,” how does the image of a journey convey the poem’s main idea? In “The Cross of Snow,” how does the image of a cross convey his lasting anguish? Using these examples, explain how images enhance meaning.
  3. Evangeline tells the true story of a dispossessed people. Biographer Charles C. Calhoun suggests that the reunion between Evangeline and Gabriel “stands for the bringing together of all the scattered Acadians—indeed, of all exiled peoples.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? How relevant does Evangeline remain when compared with twentieth and twenty-first century examples of racial and religious persecution? Support your twentieth and twenty-first century examples by citing research and valid sources.
  4. The poet W. H. Auden said that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Research the popularity, historic significance, and lasting cultural impact of Longfellow’s narrative poem Evangeline. In the case of Longfellow’s Evangeline, is Auden’s idea proved false? How important are the Evangeline statues in Nova Scotia and Louisiana? Use your answers to write an essay about Longfellow’s influence on culture and history.
  5. Longfellow biographer Charles C. Calhoun describes “The Birds of Killingworth” as “one of Longfellow’s most Unitarian works” because “its satire on Connecticut religious orthodoxy still had considerable bite in the 1860s, despite its colonial setting.” Consider the poem’s religious context. Is Longfellow making fun of, supporting, or arguing with the clergy in this tale?
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