At Maine Historical Society, we are preparing for the 208th birthday celebration of America’s beloved poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (born in Portland on February 27, 1807). Join us on Saturday, February 28 at 2:00pm to for his birthday party, eat cake, make hats, and hear his works read by local celebrities! In the meantime, please enjoy these 13 incredible facts about good ol’ Henry. Share your reactions in the comments section or on our Facebook page.
10. Henry was a major dog lover! The Longfellow family had many pets, but the “the last and greatest of all the dogs was Trap; Trap the Scotch Terrier, Trap the polite, the elegant, sometimes on account of his deportment called Turneydrop, sometimes Louis the Fourteenth” wrote Longfellow.
9. The often quoted phrases “into every life some rain must fall” and “ships that pass in the night” are lines that originated in two of Henry’s poems.
8. Henry is the only American to be honored with a bust in Westminster Abbey in London, England. His marble bust was placed in the Poet’s Corner in 1884, and stands among the monuments to other world-renowned authors and poets such as Dickens, Chaucer, and Browning.
5. Henry was a fluent speaker of eight different languages–quite the polyglot!
4. Henry was a descendant of Mayflower passengers John and Priscilla (Mullins) Alden. He made his ancestors household names with the publication of his poem The Courtship of Miles Standish in 1857.
3. At his home in Cambridge, MA, in 1867, Henry hosted Charles Dickens for Thanksgiving dinner. He also wrote the poem, Thanksgiving.
2. When Henry’s daughter Frances was born on April 7, 1847, Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep administered ether to Henry’s wife, Fanny Appleton Longfellow; this was the first recorded use of obstetric anesthetic in the United States. She later wrote about her experience, “I am very sorry you all thought me so rash and naughty in trying the ether. Henry’s faith gave me courage…I feel proud to be the pioneer to less suffering for poor, weak womankind. This is certainly the greatest blessing of this age and I am glad to have lived at the time of its coming and in the country which gives it to the world…”
1. Henry began growing a beard following the death of his second wife Fanny in 1861. Fanny died in a tragic fire and Henry was burned so badly trying to save her that he was left unable to shave his face for some time. He wore the beard the rest of his life.
We’re in the dark season of early winter, when the leaves on the trees are mostly gone, a cold wind is whipping through the city, and the sky is dark when we get out of work. It’s a perfect time to catalog some mournful poetry, in the form of broadsides. These six pieces were printed between the late 1700s and 1865.
Many of these relate the tales of actual people who died in various ways, including drowning (I’m not sure what’s up with that trend).
Four drowning poems include:
1. A mournful song: on the death of the wife and child of Mr. Nathaniel Knights, of Windham, who fell off the bridge at the falls above Horse Beef Mills, on Presumpscott River, February 22, 1807 (by Thomas Shaw, printed by J. McKown in 1807)
It starts: “All ye kind husbands, pray draw near”
And the next verse begins: “And loving wives, do you draw round”
The poem goes on to describe the accident which caused Nathaniel Knight’s wife and child to fall off the bridge and drown in the waters below. The saving grace is that:
“We trust she’s now in glory bright,
Where saints do dwell in realms of light;
And in that great assembly stands,
To praise her God with holy hands.”
38 verses later Shaw concludes: “And thus I end my mournful song.”
MHS also owns another mournful song by Thomas Shaw:
A mournful song occasioned by the shipwreck of the schooner Armistice, Captain Douglass, on Cohasset rocks, August 31, 1815: bound from Portland for Baltimore, on which occasion five persons perished.
Thomas Shaw (1753-1838), of Standish, wrote many poems, and sold his broadsides in person, as far north as Augusta. His first poem was entitled “Melancholy shipwreck,” and was about the loss of the schooner Charles, on Richmond’s Island in 1807. He made over 4500 copies of the broadside, which he then distributed. (For more information on Thomas Shaw, see a chapter in “A down-east Yankee from the district of Maine” by Windsor Daggett).
2. Lines composed by William Ramsdell, on the death of three brothers, aged five, seven and ten years, who were carried by the current, in a boat, over Hooksett Falls, N.H., October 21, 1845 (published in Boston by Howe’s Sheet Anchor Press in 1845)
“Three little boys, too fond of play,
Their mother’s voice did disobey,
And to the river did repair,
And found a boat lying there.”
This 22 verse poem also hopes that these little children made it to heaven, (despite disobeying their mother).
3. In memory of Solomon Snow : a young man of respectability and talents: who drowned in crossing the Kennebec River, from Swan Island to Bowdoinham, August 11, 1811.
Solomon Snow, a resident of Raynham, Massachusetts, was crossing the river in a small canoe “deep laden down with bricks and leaky too” when it filled with water. He tried swimming to shore, but by the time the neighbors rescued him, it was too late.
“But oh! alas! alas! his vital breath
Was gone; and he lie in the arms of death.
He’s pass’d the gulph, the gloomy veil of night,
And his unfetter’d soul had took its flight
Through trackless regions of unmeasure’d air,
The joys of heaven, with Angels for to share.
Those lovely features once so bright and gay,
Are now become to gnawing worms a prey…”
Dismal stuff indeed.
4. The death of William Harmon. Composed by Abner Warren Harmon, and published in Portland around 1843, these verses are about the death of the author’s brother, a resident of Portland, by drowning.
“Young people all, pray lend an ear,
A melancholy tale to hear,
Concerning a young man of fame,
And William Harmon was his name.
In Portland City he did reside
And in Hog Island Roads he died,
His age it was but twenty-three,
When called a watery grave to see.”
It appears that poor William sailed off to an island (possibly Diamond Island, formerly known as Hog Island), and when the main boom “instantly jibed o’er” it struck William Harmon overboard, and he drowned on July 6, 1843 at the age of 23. He is buried in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery. Once again there are religious overtones to this poem of 24 verses.
The author of this poem, Abner Warren Harmon (1812-1901), was by trade a carriage blacksmith in Scarborough.
Polly Goold didn’t drown, as far as I can tell, but somehow her final words were recorded in the 16 verses of “The last words of Polly Goold”:
“Farewell, my Father, fond and dear…
Farewell, my Mother, fond and near…
Farewell, my Brethren, young and old,
Farewell, my little Sisters too …
Farewell my young Companions all…
Farewell my neighbors kind and free…
Adieu to all things here below,
My treasure is above the sky,
My Saviour calls and I must go
And take possession bye and bye;
Dear JESUS come, delay no more,
I long to reach thy peaceful shore.”
On a different but related theme, we have the satirical piece:
Abraham Lincoln murdered April 14 … : Hymn on the death of an infant, four years of age, who departed this life … in April, 1865 … (published in Portland, ca. 1865)
“Abraham Lincoln murdered April 14.
For Father Abraham we lament,
For all his days on earth are spent;
I hope the traitor we shall find,
That to the President proved unkind.”
“Hymn on the death of an infant, four years of age,” refers to the Confederate States of America. Unlike the other poem/broadsides, there are no religious overtones, and the poem ends with “Praise Sherman, Sheridan and Grant!”
The “infant,” referred to earlier, “will be kept in state (what state nobody knows) until the 4th of July, 1865, when it will be conveyed by an intelligent contra-band who will have with him a portrait of the vehicle in which Jeff Davis, R.V. and G.D., left Richmond to Boston, when the requiem will be chanted on the Common. The chief mourners, owing to indisposition, will not be present. Paul Barer, Jeems Buckkannin, of Peneliveighney: Cheef Moreners, Jefferrson Davis, a few gitt tiv: C. Villaindamhim, of Owehigho’ve, formerly in KannaD … Bull Run Russell will be present, if ‘e’s living, and ‘ave with ‘im a copy of the London Times. Hoerryshow Seemor, of Nu Yore, will delivere the funeral sermon: Luis Nay po e lee on will be affected deep lee.
The grave has already been dug by Robert E. Lee. Johnston is engaged to varnish his coffin and procure a respectable hearse at the Last Ditch.”
Poetry’s prominence in the 19th century meant that Longfellow’s fame was on the order of today’s biggest music and movie stars. His influence is still felt throughout popular culture, as depicted on this box of tea from 1995.
In Longfellow’s day poetry was more widely read, used more often as a teaching tool, and accessible to a broader swath of the public. Over time, and perhaps unfairly, poetry became more narrowly defined as an elite pursuit, the realm of academics, intellectuals, and artistes.
In 1996, the American Academy of Poets christened April “National Poetry Month” to celebrate poetry’s intrinsic value and vitality for all. Programs like the national recitation contest Poetry Out Loud have helped reinstate the practice of learning and sharing poems with audiences. Poetry slams made poetry cool again. Recent U.S. Poet Laureates like Billy Collins, whose plain-spoken language and contemporary themes have resonated with a wide range of readers (and sold a ton of books), have reminded people that poetry is truly for everyone.
To celebrate, why not brew up a pot of tea, pop open your favorite book of poetry, and start reading? (Out loud is optional.)