Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most praised, and widely read, American poet of the 19th century. He was born in Portland, at the corner of Fore and Hancock Streets, on Feb. 27, 1807. A small plaque and giant hotel mark the spot today.
He grew up in a house on Congress Street built by his maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth. It’s a museum now.
When he was 15 years old, he entered Bowdoin College. He graduated, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, in 1825. Then, he set out on a three-year tour of Europe where he mastered seven different languages. Upon his return, he taught modern languages at Bowdoin College. Then he got job doing the same at Harvard College in 1836.
Longfellow published his first collection of poetry, “Voices of the Night,” in 1839. Then, after seven years of pleading, a woman named Fanny Appleton agreed to marry him. The next 18 years were his happiest.
He and Fanny had six children and he quit teaching to write full-time. He wrote “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” “Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline.” He also published the famous poem that starts: “Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”
But tragedy struck Longfellow’s life in 1861 when Fanny died. Her dress caught fire while she was sealing an envelope with a candle and wax. Longfellow tried to put the flames out, getting his own face burned, but she died the next day. He wore a beard for the rest of his life to hide the scars.
Longfellow spent the next few years translating Dante’s “Inferno” into English. It was the standard translation for decades.
When he recovered, he went on writing poems, becoming more beloved by the public, for another 20 years. In 1874, the New York Ledger paid him $3,000 for a poem.
He died at the age of 75 in 1882.
Six years later, Portland erected a statue of him. Fellow Mainer Franklin Simmons sculpted it. It cost $17,000. School children all over New England collected pennies, nickels and dimes to pay for it. Their names are in a sealed box, somewhere within the pedestal.
Longfellow lived most of his live in Cambridge, Massachusetts but he never forgot about Portland. He often visited his family here, including his sister Anne. She lived in their childhood home until she died in 1901.
In 1855, Longfellow published a poem called “My Lost Youth.” In it, he wrote about Portland:
Often I think of the beautiful town
That is seated by the sea;
Often in thought go up and down
The pleasant streets of that dear old town,
And my youth comes back to me.
And a verse of a Lapland song
Is haunting my memory still:
‘A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.
Note: On Monday, Feb. 27, the Maine Historical Society is celebrating Longfellow’s birthday by featuring the work of six international students from Portland High School, who will read one of Longfellow’s poems they have translated into the language of their choice. Former state Representative and historian Herb Adams will deliver his spirited annual reading of “Paul Revere’s Ride” and there will be enough cake for everyone at this free event.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.