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Longfellow's Elder Years


Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1862

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1862

The last and somewhat diminished stage of Longfellow's career began in 1861 with the tragic death of his wife Fanny. In an accident on July 9, 1861 at the Longfellow's Cambridge home, Fanny's gauzy clothing caught fire and she was enveloped in flames. She died the next day. Exactly how the accident occurred is unclear; Fanny may have inadvertently ignited her dress with a candle she was using to melt sealing wax, or she may have stepped on a self-lighting match. In his futile efforts to put the fire out, Longfellow burned his hands and face. He may have worn the beard he subsequently grew that gave him the sage, avuncular look reproduced in so many later paintings and photographs, such as the famous Julia Margaret Cameron image, to hide his facial scars. A month after Fanny's death, on August 18th, 1861, Longfellow gave voice to his despair in a letter to his late wife's sister, Mary Appleton Mackintosh. He wrote, "How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not. I am at least patient, if not resigned; and thank God hourly - as I have from the beginning - for the beautiful life we led together, and that I loved her more and more to the end." It was 18 years before he wrote "The Cross of Snow," his only poem that deals directly with his grief.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Isle of Wight, 1868

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1868 (by Julia Margaret Cameron)

The Civil War began in the same year of Fanny's death, and in 1863, Longfellow's son Charley ran off to join the fighting. Charley knew his father disapproved, but went anyway. He wrote a letter to his father saying, "I have tried to resist the temptation of going without your leave but cannot any longer." Twice during the war Henry was called to Washington to care for his son — once because of illness and once due to injury. Charley survived and spent much of his adult life traveling the world. Longfellow's three daughters also appeared on the field of battle: shortly after the fighting ended at Gettysburg in early July 1863, a copy of a painting of Edith, Alice, and Anne Allegra was found. The identity of its owner has never been discovered.

Henry W. Longfellow's daughters, ca. 1863

Photograph of a Painting of Henry W. Longfellow's Daughters, ca. 1863

After Fanny's death, Longfellow slowed considerably in writing original poems. The greatest part of his creative energy went instead into the translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, one of the great monuments of world literature, as well as a prolonged meditation on the spiritual power of love to overcome death. It was published in 1867.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow calling card, 1877

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Calling Card, ca. 1877

Though he continued to write fine verse, what were to be Longfellow's most famous works were done. His fame itself, however, continued to grow. Honors of every kind were bestowed on him in Europe and America; he was received by heads of state, including Queen Victoria, who read and appreciated his work; he became acquainted with Tennyson, Ruskin, Gladstone, Whitman, and even Oscar Wilde.

Longfellow's seventieth birthday, in 1877, became a national celebration. When he turned 72, he received a very special gift: a chair that bore a brass plate on the seat with an inscription:

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1881

Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1881

To the author of "The Village Blacksmith," This chair made from the wood of the spreading chestnut tree is presented as an expression of grateful regard and veneration by the children of Cambridge, who with their friends join in the best wishes and congratulations on this anniversary.

The nation mourned his death three years later.