Longfellow

I know that you have suffered. Suffering is endemic to human life. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow suffered. He was one of the preeminent poets of his age. He was a good man and loving husband. He was a family man. He was a handsome man. When we think of Longfellow we often see the old, bearded, white-haired man, stately in his profile and serious in his gaze. But the journey he traveled from the clean-shaven, good looking, youngish man we see in this photo below to the elder Longfellow of popular image is a journey of profound and heart-breaking tragedy.

In brief, Longfellow was married twice. His first wife was Mary Storer Potter. She was eighteen when they were married and they were married four years. At age 22, and when six months into her pregnancy, she miscarried and never recovered. She died a few weeks later. A young Longfellow lost his young wife whom he loved and child they hoped to bring into the world. He wrote, “One thought occupies me night and day… She is dead—She is dead! All day I am weary and sad.” Longfellow pours himself into his work and years go by. He then marries Frances “Fanny” Appleton after a long courtship. They had six children. Longfellow was deeply in love with Fanny. They had been married eighteen years when tragedy struck. Fanny was apparently using some hot sealing wax to seal locks of her children’s hair in envelopes when her dress caught fire. Awoken from his nap by his wife’s screams Longfellow rushed to his wife to find her engulfed in flames. He grabbed a small rug and tried to put out the flames, but the rug was too small and he then used his body to smother the flames. He carried his wife to the bed and called the doctor. Fanny, however, was so severely burned that she died the next day. Longfellow was so severely burned that he could not attend Fanny’s funeral. His face was so scared that he stopped shaving so as to cover the scars. That bearded, aged Longfellow that we know was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

Eighteen years after Fanny’s death Longfellow wrote the poem The Cross of Snow in memory of his beloved wife.

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
  A gentle face–the face of one long dead–
  Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
  The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
  Never through martyrdom of fire was led
  To its repose; nor can in books be read
  The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
  That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
  Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
  These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
  And seasons, changeless since the day she died. 

Longfellow in 1868 by Julia Margaret Cameron

Always remember, suffering is hallowed ground. This is true of your suffering and of other’s.

You can find an audio discussion of Longfellow here, from the Mars Hill Audio Journal series free CD bonus tracks.

4 Comments

Filed under Poetry

4 responses to “Longfellow

  1. Tuck,
    I’ve been studying Longfellow lately! Thanks for sharing this post and the links!
    K

  2. Curfew

    Solemnly, mournfully,
    Dealing its dole,
    The Curfew Bell
    Is beginning to toll.

    Cover the embers,
    And put out the light;
    Toil comes with the morning,
    And rest with the night.

    Dark grow the windows,
    And quenched is the fire;
    Sound fades into silence,—
    All footsteps retire.

    No voice in the chambers,
    No sound in the hall!
    Sleep and oblivion
    Reign over all!

    The book is completed,
    And closed, like the day;
    And the hand that has written it
    Lays it away.

    Dim grow its fancies;
    Forgotten they lie;
    Like coals in the ashes,
    They darken and die.

    Song sinks into silence,
    The story is told,
    The windows are darkened,
    The hearth-stone is cold.

    Darker and darker
    The black shadows fall;
    Sleep and oblivion
    Reign over all.

    —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  3. One more comment: Could there be a better name? Longfellow. Wonderful!

    • I think writers/poets had better names in the past: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the list goes on.

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