Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was known as “America’s Poet.” Born in 1807, he grew up in Portland, Maine. His poems often described American life in the 1800s. Some of his poems were about controversial topics and made people hate him.
One poem, “Christmas Bells,” was turned into a song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” He wrote this poem to describe both the sadness and the hope he felt during the Civil War.
- Henry’s family had lived in New England for many years and had been heavily involved in the Revolutionary War. His great-grandparents’ home was burned by British soldiers in 1775.
- His maternal grandfather was a judge; his father was a Harvard-educated lawyer who later served in the Massachusetts legislature and Congress.
- Henry’s paternal grandfather (his father’s father) was a great military leader during the war. He commanded all the troops in eastern Maine and was captured by the British at one point. He also served in Congress.
- At the age of fourteen, Henry went to college. He started writing poetry there. Henry’s father wanted Henry to become a lawyer, but Henry was determined to be a writer. His father worried that Henry would be poor his whole life.
- The college offered Henry a job as a professor of languages. Eighteen-year-old Henry traveled to Europe, where he studied French, Spanish, Italian, and German. He also spent time studying literature and he learned to read Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch and Portuguese.
- When he returned home from Europe, he began teaching at the college and married Mary Storer Potter. The two were very happy and Henry’s teaching and poetry writing careers flourished. After six years, Mary died. Henry was devastated.
- Henry spent the next 18 years writing poetry and teaching languages at Harvard University. He rented rooms at an old mansion in Cambridge. The house had been used by George Washington as headquarters during the siege of Boston.
- In 1843, he married Fanny Appleton. Her wealthy father bought the old mansion for the couple. They lived there happily for almost 20 years until tragedy struck. Fanny was sealing a letter with wax one night when her candle caught her nightgown on fire. Hearing her screams, Henry came running from another room to put out the fire. She died and Henry was left with serious burns.
- Henry opposed slavery. He wrote a small book of poetry about slavery. His poem “The Witnesses” talks about slaves who died when their ship sank at sea. Many people hated him for that book of poems. But Henry didn’t care. He knew that his poems might help people change their minds and hearts.
- People loved his poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” which explored the life of an Indian boy.
- When Henry was young, he loved to watch the village blacksmith work underneath a large chestnut tree in town. He later wrote a poem about the blacksmith. He protested when the town leaders wanted to cut down the chestnut tree later to widen the road. The leaders said the tree had to go, but they had it made into a chair for Henry. Children loved to come visit him and sit in his chair.
Watch a video about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.