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You know it's funny, nobody ever says "Henry Longfellow." It's always "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow," which sounds very official and formal. This is just a trifle odd because Longfellow was one of the so-called "fireside poets," a group of five nineteenth-century American poets who were about as popular in their day as Katy Perry is today. We're serious, folks. These guys sold a lot of books. They were called the "fireside poets," or sometimes the household or schoolroom poets, because their poetry sounded like stuff you would read aloud by the fire. It was memorable, easily to memorize, and dealt with common subjects that most Americans could relate to. You could say that the fireside poets wrote poetry for the people.
Longfellow was unquestionably the most popular and influential of the group, which included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. In addition to holding prestigious teaching positions at Bowdoin College and Harvard University (yes, that Harvard), Longfellow published some of the most wildly popular poetical works in the nineteenth century, such as Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), and "Paul Revere's Ride" (1861). As you've probably guessed just from looking at these titles, Longfellow wrote about a lot of very American things, and this endeared him to American reading audiences.
When he wasn't writing poetry, Longfellow engaged in other literary pursuits, such as translation, editing (he compiled a massive, 31-volume anthology entitled Poems of Places between 1876-1879), and essay writing (Longfellow was a frequent contributor to the North American Review in the early 1830s).
In 1879, near the end of his life, Longfellow wrote "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls," a short poem that is now one of his most famous. Longfellow had to know he was getting on in years and, after having already witnessed the death of two of his wives, it's no surprise that he would write a poem about death.
It's also no surprise that the last collection Longfellow published in his lifetime and the one which contained "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls," was called Ultima Thule (1880). It's certainly a strange choice for a title, that's for sure. In old European maps and atlases, Thule was a region in the very north of the known world (often identified as Norway), with "Ultima Thule" often referring to the extreme limit or edge of the known world. By calling his final volume Ultima Thule, Longfellow was very clearly suggesting that he had reached the limit or end of his time on earth.
Life is a roller coaster. There's no doubt about that. Things go up, and then things go down. Just like a roller coaster, life can be bumpy, rocky, and scary, but it can also be fun, thrilling, even exhilarating. Sometimes, it's the bumps along the way that actually make it fun. Seriously folks, those bumps can be fun, just wait. In the end, though, and just like life, a crazy roller coaster ride eventually comes to an end. We know it's sad, but life goes on, right?
Well, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew that better than anybody. At least, he knew it well. A guy who managed to keep writing even after losing two wives (one to a miscarriage, the other in a fire) has got to know something about how the tide rises and the tide falls. That's really what he's driving at in this poem. That's what we were getting at with our little roller coaster story. Life is a roller coaster, and life is like the ocean tides: it goes up, and it goes down. You are born, live, and then die (hopefully at a ripe old age like… 156). Good things happen, bad things happen, but—through it all—life goes on.
Even though this is a poem about the ups and downs of life, it's about the circle of life. It is a poem about death. It's pretty clear, after all, that the mysterious traveler in the poem who leaves the shore behind is leaving life behind as well. The roller coaster ends, and that's a sad, sad fact. But life continues even after death—if not in a spiritual sense in the afterlife, definitely in a natural sense. So, if the end of that big ride we call Life has got you down, check out this poem. Sure it's sad, no doubt about it, but it's also hopeful, too.
MHS on HWL
What can't you find on this site? It's sponsored by the Maine Historical Society.
On Translating Dante
This page features four sonnets that Longfellow wrote about his experience translating Dante.
Life of Longfellow
His was certainly an eventful life, that's for sure.
Yet Another Life of Longfellow
Here's another site, just in the case the previous one isn't for you.
This site has links to just about all of Longfellow's poems, translations, and other works.
Westminster Abbey's Tribute
Check out this short, but sweet, tribute to Longfellow.
This kid did a fantastic job on this project, that's for sure.
Another Video Version
This reading of the poem offers some great accompanying images, but a strange (sad?) tone.
The Song of Hiawatha Out Loud
If you fancy a four-hour Native American tale, this audio recording's for you.
Longfellow in Color
Check out this great color painting.
Longfellow's Portland Crib
Yep folks, he once lived in this cool-looking brick house in Portland, Maine.
We weren't lying about Longfellow being in Westminster Abbey. Check it out for yourself right here.
Longfellow's Cambridge Crib
This was his house when he lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was also George Washington's headquarters during the Revolutionary War at one point.
Digital Ultimate Thule
Look, Google has the whole thing for free.
The Dante Club
In this novel Longfellow and his pals have to solve a crime in Massachusetts.
Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life
It's slim pickings for biographies of Longfellow, but we did manage to find this one.