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HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
70NGFELLOW was born, February 27, 1807, in
Portland, Maine, where, as a boy, he learned to love
“The beauty and mystery of the ships
And the magic of the sea." He was born to a beautiful home, to a family of culture and social importance. His father, an eminent lawyer, was a Harvard graduate and a classmate of Dr. Channing and Judge Story.
At fifteen young Longfellow entered the little rustic college of Bowdoin, where Hawthorne was also a student. After graduation, Bowdoin offered him a professorship in literature, with the privilege of European travel and study to prepare him for the work. He spent three years abroad, mastering the languages and literatures of France, Spain, Italy and Germany. In 1834 he was offered the chair of modern languages in Harvard, but he asked leave to prepare himself still further in Europe by study of the Scandinavian languages. He returned to America in 1836 and settled at Cambridge, where he remained till his death, nearly fifty years afterward.
After publishing two or three books of prose, he issued, in 1839, his first volume of verse, containing his schoolboy lines and later work. His famous “Psalm of Life" was in this early collection. The next collection of his verse in
23-L & B-A
cluded “The Skeleton in Armor,” “The Village Blacksmith" and other verses that have taken their secure places in popular favor. “Evangeline” came next, a story of American soil and seasons; and this was followed by “The Building of the Ship,” “Hiawatha” and “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Longfellow's life was full of years, and there was time in it still for translating Dante's "Divine Comedy," for writing “The Tales of a Wayside Inn," "The Hanging of the Crane," "Keramos” and other works, including a trio of tragedies.
He was the best known and best loved poet in America, his fame spreading out over England and her provinces. The most bookish of poets since Milton, yet he is by no means “a scholar's poet"; rather a people's poet, limpid, luminous, sympathetic. His themes are never abstruse, his language never involved. He has the simple attack, a simplicity more sophisticated than Whittier's, yet with as unerring a flight to the instant understanding.
Science laid a deep impress on the poetry of Emerson: it left hardly a hair-line on the work of Longfellow. Like Whittier, he seemed to move on paths but faintly disturbed by the conflicts and readjustments that followed the discovery of the great law of evolution. Nor does it appear that the serenity of his soul was ever broken by the anxious questionings of the Transcendentalists. Even from his German studies and translations he comes back with only the soft flute-note of romantic legend; not with Carlylean grief and prophet cry.
He had no first-hand knowledge of human struggle and failure: he saw it all from a sheltered place, as one might look on a battle from the quiets of a mountain-top. The real was legendary to him, the legendary was real. He lived in a passionate epoch of progress: with Channing, Agassiz and Emerson at home; with Darwin, Ruskin and Carlyle over the water. He did not do their stern, aggressive work, but he nevertheless toiled at a beauty very noble in the world order.