Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Essay, Research Paper

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Born into a prominent family on February 27, 1807, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grew up in the bustling town of Portland, Maine. His parents Stephen and Zilpah Longfellow provided a strong, but refined, Puritan background, while encouraging Henry to excel in academics (Wagenknecht 2). Longfellow s education began early, when he was enrolled in an old-fashioned dame school at the age of three (Wagenknecht 4). His schooling continued in 1815 with his entrance into the Portland Academy. At the age of fourteen, Longfellow entered Bowdoin College where his academic brilliance earned him a position of fourth in a graduating class of thirty-eight (Williams, Preface). Stephen Longfellow encouraged his son to pursue a stable career in law, but Longfellow s love of words led him to accept the newly established professorship of modern languages at Bowdoin College (Wagenknecht 3). He traveled extensively in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany to refine his language skills in preparation for his six-year long professorship.

Harvard University offered Longfellow the “Smith Professorship of French and Spanish” in 1834 and he, again, traveled to Europe. His wife of four years, Mary Storer Potter, accompanied him on the trip. While they were in the Netherlands, Mary suffered a miscarriage and died weeks later from the extreme trauma. Longfellow spent the winter grieving, but met his second wife, Fanny Appleton, in Switzerland the next spring. They were married in the summer of 1843, and Fanny bore nine children before her tragic death on July 9, 1861. He grieved tremendously for his wife of eighteen years, but took comfort in their children and his memories of their life together. Longfellow continued to write poetry and in 1868 he received honorary degrees at Oxford and Cambridge from Queen Victoria. His health began to fail in 1881, and he died of peritonitis on March 24, 1882. A bust of Longfellow was mounted in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in 1884 as a tribute to the outstanding writer. He is the only non-British author to be awarded this honor (Williams 21). Longfellow was “the first of the front-ranking American poets of his time to go, and his death was widely recognized as marking the beginning of the end of an era” (Wagenknecht 19).

A popular poet, Longfellow deals “with important subjects clearly and forthrightly while adopting a frankly didactic and inspirational tone” (Allabeck 118). He uses simple language. He once stated that if a poet “wishes the world to listen and be edified, he will do well to choose a language that is generally understood” (Allabeck 119). Although only a “second class poet,” his ability to capture his readers’ interest and appeal to their emotions has made Longfellow a staple figure in the hearts of his followers (Allabeck 118). He writes to inspire and improve society using “metrical regularity” and “careful rhyme” to emphasize his idea that life is meaningful (Allabeck 118). The rhythmic cadence in “A Psalm of Life,” “The Village Blacksmith,” and “The Rainy Day” suggests that the lives of men are characterized by distinct cycles.

“The Village Blacksmith,” written in 1839, is one of Longfellow’s best-known ballads. The poem was described by Longfellow as ” ‘a new Psalm of Life,’ ” written only one year later (Montiero 14). Its six-line stanzas are a variation of the form, but it has the “swing and movement” characteristic of ballads (Williams 139). Edward Wagenknecht comments that there are “irregularities in the rhyme scheme and some imperfect rhymes, all of which is managed well, with a rather daring variation in the iambic meter and the beginning of the penultimate stanza”. Inspired by a blacksmith ancestor and the smithy Longfellow passed each day in Cambridge, the eight stanza poem is a “sympathetic portrait of the humble but virtuous . . . workman” and his daily struggles and triumphs in life (Williams 139).

The first and second stanzas describe the weathered appearance and interior compassion of the protagonist. He is a “mighty man” with muscles “strong as iron bands” (Henry 3). His line of work demands the brawny exterior, but Longfellow reveals his sensitive side in stanzas five and six. He attends church every Sunday with his children and listens attentively to his daughter, who is in the choir. The voice of his daughter “sounds to him like her mother’s voice” and “with his hard, rough hand he wipes / A tear out of his eyes” (lines 35-36). Longfellow contrasts the burly exterior of the blacksmith with his soft, sentimental interior, creating an analogy to the Romantic view of the common man.

In stanzas two and three Longfellow praises the blacksmith’s honesty and virtue while describing the rhythmical nature of his life. His life is a cycle. He toils “week in, week out, from morn till night” to satisfy his customers and support his family (line 13). The “heavy sledge”(line 15) swung with “measured beat and slow” (line 16) is a symbol of his infallibility and strength, no matter what is happening in the world around him, he is in his smithy working. His presence is a constant reminder to those around him that life is meaningful.

The final two stanzas bring closure to the poem and correlate the theme of the work. In the seventh stanza, the poet states:

Toiling, –rejoicing, –sorrowing,

Onward through life he goes;

Each morning sees some task begin,

Each evening sees it close;

Something attempted, something done,

Has earned a night’s repose (lines 37-42)

“Each morning” and “each night” are representative not only of periods of a day, but are a metaphor for life as well. The deeds that the blacksmith has performed in his daily life, from youth to old age, will earn his “repose” in death (line 42). The second line of this stanza describes the blacksmith’s perseverance through whatever problems he confronts. He marches steadily “onward,” never criticizing or blaming others for his misfortunes, including the death of his wife (line 38). He is noble, respectable, and self-sufficient, he “earns whate’er he can”(line 10) and “owes not any man”(line 2). In the final stanza Longfellow exalts this humble worker, thanking him for the “lesson [he] hast taught” (line 14). This lesson is that men must face the obstacles in his path, for life is a constant process. It is the indomitable spirit of man that allows him to triumph over the ills he encounters in his daily life. Another of Longfellow’s poems, “A Rainy Day,” also deals with the concept of man’s unconquerable will.

Longfellow drafted “The Rainy Day” in 1841 at his childhood home in Portland. According to Cecil B. Williams, it is one of his “best-known short lyrics;” it is composed of only three stanzas containing five lines apiece (Williams 133). Edward Wagenknecht comments upon the poem’s seemingly “mathematical” balance, crediting this harmonious poise to the first stanza’s description of the rainy day, the second stanza’s reference to Longfellow’s life and stanza three’s comparison of the previous two stanzas (Wagenknecht 72). The poem is a prominent example of man’s ability to overcome his sorrows.

The poem begins in a despairing mood, with Longfellow describing a “dark” and “dreary” day (Arvin 97). It is raining, the wind is blowing incessantly, and the poet’s reference to “dead leaves” indicates a somber tone. The third line: “The vine still clings to the mouldering wall” represents Longfellow’s thoughts that his life has been in vain, his toils wasted (line 3). He ends the poem by restating the first line, emphasizing that the day is “dark and dreary” (line 5). The second stanza discusses Longfellow’s life and how he compares it to the rainy day.

In the second stanza of “The Rainy Day,” Longfellow drafts such “self-pitying lines as ‘My life is cold, and dark, and dreary’ ” (Williams 133). He exaggerates his feelings of despair in relationship to his age. These feelings are indicated in lines eight and nine, when he relates that his “thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,” while the “hopes of youth” are destroyed by time’s deadly sickle (lines 8-9). Longfellow was thirty-four when he composed this poem, and his waning youth may have become apparent to him as he sat contemplating this useless rainy day. Many critics propose that the last stanza of the poem should have been omitted, but Edward Wagenknecht feels that is a “necessary addition, without which the poem would have little meaning” (Wagenknecht 73).

The final stanza of “The Rainy Day” joins the previous two stanzas while offering an inspirational and hopeful mood. He criticizes himself for obvious shift from the dismal tone of its precedents, the final five lines are meant to rouse the spirits of men and end needless remorse. The poet assures his audience that “behind the clouds is the sun still shining,” suggesting that suffering will eventually lead to reward (line 12). Longfellow stresses the idea that “into each life some rain must fall,”men must experience sorrow to appreciate joy (line 14).

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