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Chapter 2: birth, childhood, and youth

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born in Portland, Maine, February 27, 1807, being the son of Stephen and Zilpah (Wadsworth) Longfellow, both his parents having been descended from Yorkshire families which had migrated in the seventeenth century. The name of Longfellow first appears in English records as Langfellay, while the name of Wadsworth sometimes appears as Wordsworth, suggesting a possible connection with another poet. His father, Stephen Longfellow, was a graduate of Harvard College in 1794, being a classmate of the Rev. Dr. W. E. Channing and the Hon. Joseph Story. He became afterward a prominent lawyer in Portland. He was also at different times a member of the Massachusetts Legislature, Maine being then a part of that State; a member of the celebrated Hartford Convention of Federalists; a presidential elector, and a member of Congress. In earlier generations the poet's grandfather was a judge of the Court of Common Pleas; his great-grandfather was a graduate of [12] Harvard College in 1742, and was afterward town schoolmaster, parish clerk, and register of probate; his great-great-grandfather was a ‘village blacksmith;’ and his ancestor once more removed, the American founder of the family, was William Longfellow, who was born in Hampshire County, England, in 1651, and came in early life to this country, where he engaged in mercantile pursuits. Thus much for the paternal ancestry.

To turn to the ‘spindle side,’ Mr. Longfellow's mother was Zilpah Wadsworth, eldest daughter of General Peleg Wadsworth, who was the son of Deacon Peleg Wadsworth, of Duxbury, Mass., and was the fifth in descent from Christopher Wadsworth, who came from England and settled in that town before 1632. The Peleg Wadsworth of military fame was born at Duxbury, and graduated from Harvard in 1769; he afterward taught school at Plymouth, and married Elizabeth Bartlett of that town; he then took part in the Revolution as captain of a company of minutemen, and rose to a major-general's command, serving chiefly on the eastern frontier. He was captured, was imprisoned, escaped, and had many stirring adventures. When the war was over he purchased from the State no less than 7500 acres of wild land, and spent the rest of his life at Hiram, Maine, representing his congressional [13] district, however, for fourteen years in the national Congress. Through the Wadsworths and Bartletts, the poet could trace his descent to not less than four of the Mayflower pilgrims, including Elder Brewster and Captain John Alden.

Judge Longfellow, the poet's grandfather, is described as having been ‘a fine-looking gentleman with the bearing of the old school; an erect, portly figure, rather tall; wearing, almost to the close of his life, the old-style dress,—long skirted waistcoat, small-clothes, and white-topped boots, his hair tied behind in a club, with black ribbon.’ General Wadsworth was described by his daughter as ‘a man of middle size, well proportioned, with a military air, and who carried himself so truly that men thought him tall. His dress a bright scarlet coat, buff small-clothes and vest, full ruffled bosom, ruffles over the hands, white stockings, shoes with silver buckles, white cravat with bow in front, hair well powdered and tied behind in a club, so called.’ The poet was eminently well descended, both on the father's and mother's side, according to the simple provincial standard of those days.

Stephen Longfellow and his young wife lived for a time in a brick house built by General Wadsworth in Portland, and still known as ‘the Longfellow house;’ but it was during a temporary [14] residence of the family at the house of Samuel Stephenson, whose wife was a sister of Stephen Longfellow, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born. He was the second son, and was named for an uncle, Henry Wadsworth, a young naval lieutenant, who was killed in 1804 by the explosion of a fire-ship, before the walls of Tripoli. The Portland of 1807 was, according to Dr. Dwight,—who served as a sort of travelling inspector of the New England towns of that period,—‘beautiful and brilliant;’ but the blight of the Embargo soon fell upon it. The town needed maritime defences in the war of 1812, and a sea-fight took place off the coast, the British brig Boxer being captured during the contest by the Enterprise, and brought into Portland harbor in 1813. All this is beautifully chronicled in the poem ‘My Lost Youth:’ —

I remember the sea-fight far away,
     How it thundered o'er the tide!
And the dead captains, as they lay
     In their graves, overlooking the tranquil bay
Where they in battle died.
     And the sound of that mournful song
Goes through me with a thrill;
     “A boy's will is the wind's will, And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.

Here Henry Longfellow spent his childhood and youth. Much of that strong aversion to [15] war which pervades the poet's verses may undoubtedly be charged to early association with his uncle's death.

The imaginative side of his temperament has commonly been attributed to his mother, who was fond of poetry and music, and a lover of nature in all its aspects; one who would sit by a window during a thunderstorm, as her youngest son has testified, ‘enjoying the excitement of its splendors.’ She loved the retirement of a country life, and found in it, in her own language, ‘a wonderful effect in tranquillizing the spirit and calming every unpleasant emotion.’ She played the spinet until her daughter's piano replaced it, and apparently read Cowper, Hannah More, and Ossian with her children. She sent them early to school, after the fashion of those days; this experience evidently beginning for Henry Longfellow at three years of age, when he went with a brother of five to a private school where he learned his letters. After several experiments, he was transferred, at the tolerably early age of six, to the Portland Academy. At this age, his teacher, Mr. Carter, wrote of him, ‘Master Henry Longfellow is one of the best boys we have in school. He spells and reads very well. He also can add and multiply numbers. His conduct last quarter was very correct and amiable.’ He began early to [16] rhyme, and the first poem of his composing which is known to be preserved in manuscript is entitled, ‘Venice, an Italian Song,’ and was dated Portland Academy, March 17, 1820, he being then barely thirteen. There appeared a little later, in the poets' corner of the Portland ‘Gazette,’ the following verses, which show curiously, at the very outset, that vibration between foreign themes and home themes which always marks his verse:—

The battle of Lovell's Pond

Cold, cold is the north wind and rude is the blast
That sweeps like a hurricane loudly and fast,
As it moans through the tall waving pines lone and drear,
Sighs a requiem sad o'er the warrior's bier.

The war-whoop is still, and the savage's yell
Has sunk into silence along the wild dell;
The din of the battle, the tumult, is o'er,
And the war-clarion's voice is now heard no more.

The warriors that fought for their country, and bled,
Have sunk to their rest; the damp earth is their bed;
No stone tells the place where their ashes repose,
Nor points out the spot from the graves of their foes.

They died in their glory, surrounded by fame,
And Victory's loud trump their death did proclaim;
They are dead; but they live in each Patriot's breast,
And their names are engraven on honor's bright crest.

These verses cannot be assigned to the domain of high art, most certainly, but they mark in this [17] case the beginning of a career, and milestones are always interesting. It was Longfellow's first poem, and he chose an American subject. We know from him the circumstances of the reception of this youthful effort. When the morning paper arrived it was unfolded and read by his father, and no notice was taken of the effusion; but when, in the evening, the boy went with his father to the house of Judge Mellen, his father's friend, whose son Frederic was his own playmate, the talk turned upon poetry. The host took up the morning's ‘Gazette.’ ‘Did you see the piece in to-day's paper? Very stiff. Remarkably stiff; moreover, it is all borrowed, every word of it.’ No defence was offered. It is recorded that there were tears on the young boy's pillow that night.

The young Henry Longfellow went to various schools, as those of Mrs. Fellows and Mr. Carter, and the Portland Academy, then kept by Mr. Bezaleel Cushman, a Dartmouth College graduate. In 1821, he passed the entrance examinations of Bowdoin College, of which his father was a trustee. The college itself was but twenty years old, and Maine had only just become an independent State of the Union, so that there was a strong feeling of local pride in this young institution. Henry Longfellow's brother, Stephen, two years older than himself, passed the examinations [18] with him, but perhaps it was on account of the younger brother's youth—he being only fourteen—that the boys remained a year longer at home, and did not go to Brunswick until the beginning of the Sophomore year. Henry's college life was studious and modest. He and Nathaniel Hawthorne were classmates, having been friends rather than intimates, and Hawthorne gives in his ‘Fanshawe’ a tolerably graphic picture of the little rural college. Neither of the two youths cared much for field sports, but both of them were greatly given to miscellaneous reading; and both of them also spent a good deal of time in the woods of Brunswick, which were, and still are, beautiful. Longfellow pursued the appointed studies, read poetry, was fond of Irving, and also of books about the Indians, an experience which in later life yielded him advantage.

It is just possible that these books may have revived in him a regret expressed in one of his early college letters that he had not gone to West Point instead of Bowdoin,—some opportunity of appointment to the military school, perhaps through his uncle, General Wadsworth, having possibly been declined in his behalf.1 It is curious indeed to reflect that had he made this [19] different selection, he might have been known to fame simply as Major-General Longfellow.

Hon. J. W. Bradbury, another classmate, describes Henry Longfellow as having ‘a slight, erect figure, delicate complexion, and intelligent expression of countenance,’ and further adds: ‘He was always a gentleman in his deportment, and a model in his character and habits.’ Still another classmate, Rev. David Shepley, D. D., has since written of Longfellow's college course: ‘He gave urgent heed to all departments of study in the prescribed course, and excelled in them all; while his enthusiasm moved in the direction it has taken in subsequent life. His themes, felicitous translations of Horace, and occasional contributions to the press, drew marked attention to him, and led to the expectation that his would be an honorable literary career.’ He spent his vacations in Portland, where the society was always agreeable, and where the women, as one of his companions wrote, seemed to him ‘something enshrined and holy,—to be gazed at and talked with, and nothing further.’ In one winter vacation he spent a week in Boston and attended a ball given by Miss Emily Marshall, the most distinguished of Boston's historic belles, and further famous as having been the object of two printed sonnets, the one by Willis and the other by Percival. He wrote to his [20] father that on this occasion he saw and danced with Miss Eustaphieve, daughter of the Russian consul, of whom he says, ‘She is an exceedingly graceful and elegant dancer, and plays beautifully upon the pianoforte.’ He became so well acquainted in later days with foreign belles and beauties that it is interesting to imagine the impression made upon him at the age of twenty-one by this first social experience, especially in view of the fact that after his returning from Europe, he records of himself that he never danced, except with older ladies, to whom the attention might give pleasure.

1 From a manuscript letter not dated as to year, but written, apparently, while he was a freshman.

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