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The most widely known and best-loved American poet of his lifetime, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow achieved a level of national and international prominence previously unequaled in the literary history of the United States.

Poems such as “Paul Revere’s Ride,” (1847), and “A Psalm of Life” became mainstays of national culture, long remembered by generations of readers who studied them in school.

Longfellow’s celebrity in his own time, however, has yielded to changing literary tastes and to reactions against the genteel tradition of authorship he represented.

Still, Longfellow’s achievements in fictional and nonfictional prose, in a striking variety of poetic forms and modes, and in translation from many European languages resulted in a remarkably productive and influential literary career—one achieved despite pressures of college teaching and repeated personal tragedies.

Even if time has proved him something less than the master poet he never claimed to be, Longfellow made pioneering contributions to American literary life by exemplifying the possibility of a successful authorial career, by linking American poetry to European traditions beyond England, and by developing a surprisingly wide readership for romantic poetry.

Born on February 27, 1807, in Portland while Maine was still a part of Massachusetts, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grew up in the thriving coastal city he remembered in “My Lost Youth” (1856) for its wharves and woodlands, the ships and sailors from distant lands who sparked his boyish imagination, and the historical associations of its old fort and an 1813 offshore naval battle between American and British brigs.

His father, Stephen Longfellow, was an attorney and a Harvard graduate active in public affairs.

His mother, Zilpah (Wadsworth) Longfellow, was the daughter of General Peleg Wadsworth, who had served in the American Revolution.

She named this second son among her eight children for her brother, Henry Wadsworth, who had died heroically in Tripoli harbor in 1804.The family occupied the first brick house in Portland, built by the general and still maintained as a literary shrine to its most famous occupant.Henry began his schooling at age three, when he and his older brother, Stephen, enrolled in the first of several private schools in which they prepared for entrance to Bowdoin College.Aside from a leg injury that nearly resulted in amputation when he was eight, Henry apparently enjoyed his school friendships and outdoor recreation both in Portland and at his Grandfather Wadsworth’s new home in the frontier village of Hiram, Maine.His father’s book collection provided literary models of a neoclassical sort, and family storytelling acquainted him with New England lore dating to pilgrim days.The boy’s first publication, appearing in the November 17, 1820 and signed simply “Henry,” drew on local history for a melancholy four-quatrain salute to warriors who fell at “The Battle of Lovell’s Pond.” A family friend’s dismissal of the piece as both “stiff” and derivative may have discouraged Henry’s ambition for the time.

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