Henry Wadsworth






Issues and themes


As a boy, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew he wanted to become a poet.  The beautiful scenery of the coastal city left an impact on young Longfellow.  He was the second of eight children in his family, and second to his happiness at home was the nature of Portland that surrounded him.  As Edward Hirsh described in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The nearby woods and the northward sweep of primeval forest beyond them; the color and bustle of the harbor; above all, the restless Atlantic with its changing moods--these were to haunt Longfellow's imagination throughout his life and to give much of his poetry its dominant imagery" (6).  Portland, Maine, inspired Longfellow's desire to see more of the world through its metropolitan life, yet at the same time the waterfront served as the quiet escape for meditation (Williams 28).  Living in Portland he witnessed many memorable historical events, such as in 1813 the seafight between the British and the Americans.  In 1824 the Marquis de Lafayette visited Portalnd.  As Cecil B. Williams stated, it is easy to believe that "much of his (Longfellow's) facility for verse rhythms came to him through his responsive listening to the lapping of the waves and to the sighing of the wind in lofty pines nearby" (29).  Edward Hirsh agreed as he wrote: "The sea is Longfellow's deepest and most inclusive symbol. . . it is the restless mystery of existence. . ." (26).  Longfellow loved Portland and absorbed all that he could; he took nothing for granted and, from the images he gathered and lessons he learned, he published beautiful  poems enabling the rest of the world to share in these indescribable visions.


After he graduated from college, Longfellow's yearning to be a poet had intensified into a "burning ambition" (Williams 129).  Other than his dedicated desire to be a poet, he possessed many great qualifications.  As a boy, he was always conscientious, industrious, persevering, and prompt, and every task he engaged in received his full and best effort.  At the same time he loved to play like all little boys do.  As he grew and began to write more and more poetry, "he was equipped to become a first-rate poet" (Williams 129).  Longfellow was very careful, skillful, and sensitive in his use of language.  Language that he chose was "simple and economical, natural in movement, emotionally exact in its use of words and phrases, and restrained in statement" (Hirsh 31).  He is noted for the way in which his language takes on its own life, charged with meaning from the ever-occurring situations of life.  According to Williams, Longfellow, unlike other poets, did not depend on connotations or overtones from within the poem to create these lively verses; rather, he created illusions of events and experiences of life that generally everyone can relate to.  He goes on to address that a significant supply of knowledge about Longfellow and his life are essential to fully understand the meaning of his works.  His "genuine poetic imagination" had been steadfastly building in credibility from all his life experiences (129).  Longfellow possessed an outstanding ear for rhyme and meter, and his knowledge of different "prosodic forms" allowed him to be 'choosey' when creating his poems (Williams 129).  His  technical endowment was considered much better than average.  "If his worst fault is that he made poetry seem so easy to write that anyone could do it, his greatest virtue is that he made poetry seem worth reading and worth writing" (Parker 628).

Before Tragedy

Longfellow went to college at Bowdoin and became a professor of modern languages.  He spent many years in Europe mastering many different languages.  When he returned, he was offered and quickly accepted a position to teach at Harvard.  The position required more studying, and he returned to Europe again.  He enjoyed traveling, and his trip in 1835 brought him to meet his future second wife, Fanny Appleton, the Boston heiress.  They received the Craigie House in Cambridge as a wedding gift from her father .  Longfellow had everything he could have wanted; his "life was idyllic" (Parker 629). Longfellow and Fanny had five children: Charles, Ernest, Alice, Edith, and Annie Allegra.  He was very tender, devotional, and loving toward his children, and "The Children's Hour" is one of the poems Longfellow wrote depicting himself as their father, a poet.  All his friendships were lifelong.  During his middle years Longfellow was "less successfully challenged; and just materially, thanks to his literary rewards and his wife's fortune, his life was as easy and as free from pinch as that of any American writer has ever been (Arvin 133).

After Tragedy

On July 9, 1861, while Longfellow was resting in his study, something happened just seconds away in the room next door that would affect his life forever.  His beloved wife was sealing up their daughter's hair when either a drop of hot wax or a spark sprang into her lap and set her summer dress aflame.  Longfellow was awoken as Fanny ran to him, and he frantically attempted to smother the flames.  Fanny was severely burned and passed away that night.  Longfellow also was badly burned yet not to the extreme that his wife was.  He was unable to shave his face anymore as a result of the scars left by the burning flames; this is where the well-pictured "bearded Longfellow" (white Longfellow) was created (Hirsh 12).  For months, Longfellow lived his life in constant grief.  Newton Arvin in his Longfellow. . .His Life and Work stated: "His mind wandered, and he feared that he would go mad."  Longfellow was deeply depressed and never spoke freely of his loss to anyone.  He does, however, refer to it directly in only one of his poems, "The Cross of Snow" (Hirsh 12-13).  Edward Hirsh wrote that Longfellow forced himself to "resume writing as an escape from his grief" (13).  It was during this time that he accomplished some of his most successful works.  Yet the transformation from happy spirited and peaceful  poems to dark, mysterious, and gloomy work can be easily recognized.  "The Rainy Day" is one of his best-known poems written after Fanny's death.  In the poem, Longfellow compares his life to that of a rainy day being "cold, and dark, and dreary" (Williams 133).   After many sad poems, Longfellow took his last journey to Europe from 1868-1869.  This trip was "almost royal progress, with honorary degrees conferred by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. . . cheers of the undergraduates. . . reception by Queen Victoria. . . . Victor Hugo saluted Longfellow as a man who brought honor to America. . . he was clearly the uncrowned poet  laureate " (Hirsh 14). 


The Children's Hour

Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the Children's Hour.
I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.
From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.
A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.
A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!
They climb up into my  turret
O'er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.
They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
Do you think, O blue-eyed  banditti
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!
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.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!


ln.  6:  "Patter of little feet" imagery- creates a vision for the reader, actually hearing feet
ln 18:  "A sudden raid from the hall stair" metaphor
ln 20:  "They enter my castle wall" metaphor- refers to his study
ln 25-29 "devour. . . entwine. . .banditti. . ." conceit- their love is like an attack
ln 29:  "Do you think, O bule-eyed banditti," vocative- addresses his children
ln 31:  "Such an old mustache as I am" synecdoche- represents himself and his age
lns 33-40 "have you fast. . .not let you depart. . .tower of my heart. . . keep you forever. . ." conceit- continues with the idea of being raided, as he maneuvers a counter-attack of his love.

"The Children's Hour" is a very touching and heart-warming poem.  Longfellow's persona is much like Longfellow himself.   The three children mentioned in lines 11 and 12 are the names of Longfellow's daughters. The poem describes how the father and poet reserves time each day to spend with his children (lines 1-4).  He describes in an exciting way his children sneaking up on him, ready to play.  He uses vivid detail, from their "little feet" (ln. 6), their whispers (ln. 13), their "merry eyes" (ln.14), to their attack of love and affection.  Longfellow creates a conceit by comparing his children's and his love to a raid of affection.  He is bombarded with hugs and kisses (ln. 25-26).  The persona plans and executes a counterattack.  It is not an attack of harsh words nor demands to be left alone; rather, he captures the children in the tower of his heart.  In his heart they will remain safe and loved forever.  He vows to love them for eternity, "forever and a day," until his death, when the "walls shall crumble to ruin" (ln. 37-40).

Unfamiliar Terms


Written by Melissa Rich, student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Edited by Mark Canada, Ph.D.