When Peleg Wadsworth built his family home on Congress Street in 1786, he could see the Fore River from his front door. The city grew up around the structure as the Wadsworth-Longfellow family flourished and made history within its walls and the fabric of young America's culture and government. Peleg's daughter, Zilpah Wadsworth, married Stephen Longfellow IV on the first floor, and they raised their eight children in the home with love and high standards. Their second-eldest son, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote his first childhood poem there before going on to pen great classics including "Paul Revere's Ride" and Evangeline. Young Henry watched his father help craft the Maine Constitution and experienced revolutionary ideals of his home city. Step inside the historic Longfellow House and explore the city that shaped a beloved American poet.
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About the Author
John Babin is the visitor services manager for the Wadsworth/Longfellow House in Portland, run by the Maine Historical Society. John has served as site coordinator and guide at the Wadsworth/Longfellow House, led the "Longfellow's Childhood and Portland History" walk on the Longfellow Trail for grades K-12 and guided Old Port Walking Tours' "Portland History" tour.
Portland native Allan Levinsky is the author of The Night Sky Turned Red, A Short History of Portland and At Home with the General. For seventeen years, he served as a guide for the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Home under the Maine Historical Society.
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THE POET'S BIRTH
On February 27, 1807, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born to father Stephen Longfellow and mother Zilpah Wadsworth Longfellow. At the time of the poet's birth, they were staying at Stephen's sister Abigail's home while her husband, Captain Samuel Stephenson, was away at sea. The home was located on the corner of Fore and Hancock Streets facing the harbor and remained there until it was torn down in the 1950s.
The year 1807 was also when the Portland Observatory was built in the area called Munjoy Hill on the east side of the town. In 1807, Portland, then part of Massachusetts, was a thriving seaport that had a problem. Merchants on the wharfs did not know what ships were expected to dock or at what time, so rounding up manpower needed to unload the cargo became a big problem. Captain Lemuel Moody, a sea captain and Portland resident, came up with a solution. He would build an observatory overlooking the harbor. Using signal flags, the observatory could help the merchants identify vessels so they could reserve wharf space and hire the manpower they would need to get the cargo unloaded.
By June 1812, the British Royal Navy had impressed more than six thousand of our seamen, and the U.S. government had had it. On June 18, 1812, Congress declared war against England. Much of the war passed Portland by except for one famous incident that took place about forty miles from the town on September 6, 1813, when a sixteen-gun British brig, HMS Boxer, began firing on an American privateer, the brig Margaretta. When the news reached Portland, it was noticed by the captain of the USS Enterprise, anchored in Portland Harbor, and he immediately made his way to engage the British ship. He reached it by 5:00 a.m., and shots were engaged. The battle was engaged until 3:45 p.m. During the battle, a large crowd gathered at the observatory to see the smoke from the cannon fire, the only evidence that war had come to the area.
In 1807, the population of Portland was six thousand people. In December of that year, Thomas Jefferson imposed an embargo on trade. As a result, American exports dropped from $108 million in 1807 to $22 million in 1808. The embargo had a lasting and damaging impact on Maine. Prior to the embargo, Portland was one of the most prosperous cities in New England. But by early 1808, many of the leading Portland ship owners and merchants had failed, and unemployment in coastal towns had risen close to 60 percent. Portland's leading residents established a soup kitchen for the unemployed, providing one free soup dinner per day for out-of-work men and their families. The Embargo Act of 1807 lasted until March 1809, effectively halting American overseas trade. The United States suffered greatly, and in the commercial parts of New England, ships sat at the wharves to rot. It was a financial disaster for America because the British were still able to export goods here.
During this time, Maine remained loyal to the Republican Party while most of Massachusetts did not. Some residents were driven by hard times and had to resort to smuggling to earn a living, and Maine became one of the most notorious areas for illegal trade with Canada. Despite the economic troubles plaguing Portland and the young nation, Stephen Longfellow's business thrived and provided a comfortable life for the family.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's childhood was a pleasant one, with very nurturing and understanding parents and a very close relationship with his siblings. Portland was a seaport town, and much of the poetry Henry wrote came back to the town he so loved. From the front of the second floor of his childhood home, he could look out at Portland Harbor and see as far as Portland Head, home of the lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth. His poem "The Lighthouse" is known to have been written in Longfellow's childhood home:
The Rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.
Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
In the white lip and tremor of the face.
And as the evening darkens, lo! How bright,
Through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light
With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!
Not one alone; from each projecting cape
And the perilous reef along the ocean's verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o'er the restless surge.
Like a great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night-o'rtaken mariner to save.
And the great ships sail outward and return,
Bending and bowing o'er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn,
They wave their silent welcomes and farewells.
They come forth from the darkness, and their sails
Gleam for a moment only in the blaze,
And eager faces, as the light unveils,
Gaze at the tower, and vanish while they gaze.
From the back of the home, Henry could see the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Deering Woods was on the western part of town, where the poet enjoyed the beautiful natural scenery, reading under the trees and bathing in the creek. He remembered the days in the poem "My Lost Youth":
And Deering's Woods are fresh and fair,
And with joy that is almost pain My heart goes back to wander there,
And among the dreams of the days that were,
I find my lost youth again.
And the strange and beautiful song,
The groves are repeating still:
"A boy's will is the wind's will,
And thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."
To the east of the home was Munjoy Hill. This area consisted of open fields and pastures, but on the Fore Street end of the hill, there was a very busy seaport with wharves and schooners; at the top of Munjoy Hill, there was the eighty-six-foot-tall Portland Observatory. It still stands today, overlooking the harbor.
Henry's father was a lawyer, and as part of his practice, he traveled throughout Maine, attending court sessions, spending time away from his young family. In a very early letter, Zilpah wrote to her husband, Stephen, who was away, of young Henry: "I think you would like my Henry W. He is an active rogue, and wishes for nothing so much as singing and dancing."
Henry also had a close relationship with both of his grandparents, spending part of his summers in Gorham, Maine, at his grandfather Judge Stephen Longfellow's home and in Hiram, Maine, with his grandfather Peleg Wadsworth at his home. Judge Stephen Longfellow was born in Gorham and was a leading citizen of the town, serving as a representative and senator in the Massachusetts legislature and as a judge. General Peleg Wadsworth was born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, a Revolutionary War hero who had been wounded, taken prisoner, escaped and continued to fight the British encroachment of the Northeast. He participated in the government of Portland and was elected as a senator in the Massachusetts legislature.
Life for the children was a very happy one at the childhood home. The poet's younger sister, Anne, remembered, "Books and satchels were the ornaments of the parlor table in the evening, and silence the motto, till lessons were learned — then fun and games were not wanting, and when they grew too fast ...for the parlor, the old kitchen rang with our shouts and glee."
Also living in the childhood home was Aunt Lucia, Zilpah's younger sister, who helped raise all eight Longfellow children. The children had a saying they would recite to tell folks their name in the order of their birth: "Stephen and Henry, Elizabeth and Anne, Alex and Mary, Ellen and Sam."
From the poem "Musings," known to have been written in Longfellow's childhood home, comes the following:
I sat by my window one night,
And watched how the stars grew high;
And the earth and skies were a splendid sight
To a sober and musing eye
From heaven the silver moon shone down
With gentle and mellow ray,
And beneath the crowded roofs of the town
In broad light and shadow lay.
A glory was on the silent sea,
And mainland and island too,
Till a haze came over the lowland lea,
And shrouded that beautiful blue.
THE POET AND THE WAR OF 1812
The War of 1812 started on June 18, when young Henry was only five years old, and lasted until February 18, 1815, just nine days before Henry's eighth birthday. In a letter, Zilpah wrote of young Henry: "He was prepared to march against the British at a moment's notice," and that his tin gun had been ready for a week. At the time of the war, he would write to his father from the home in Portland: "Ann wants a little bible like Betsy's. Will you please buy her one if you can find any in Boston. I have been to school all week and got seven marks. I shall have a billet on Monday. I wish you to buy me a drum." Henry's mother, Zilpah, wrote to her husband, who was in Boston attending the General Court: "Enclosed is Henry's letter, the product of some hours attentive employment. I mention this that you may appreciate it not by it's appearance but by it's intrinsic value." Stephen responded to the letter, writing to Henry that he had found a drum with an eagle painted on it and that he would purchase the drum if he could find a way to send it to Portland. At the time of the letters, no ships were being allowed to sail from Boston to Portland due to the war.
On September 5, 1813, a battle between the British brig Boxer and USS Enterprise began off Monhegan and Seguin Island, Maine. When the fighting was finally over, the Enterprise was the victor and the Boxer lay in ruins. Both ships were damaged badly in the battle, with the Enterprise suffering damage to the rigging, while the Boxer suffered damage in its rigging, hull and mast, making it very difficult to keep it afloat as it was towed back into Portland. In this battle, the commander of the Boxer, twenty- nine-year-old captain Samuel Blyth, died during the opening exchange of cannon fire. Command of the Boxer was taken over by Lieutenant David McGrery. Boxer casualties totaled seven killed and thirteen wounded.
Mortally wounded a short time later during this battle was Enterprise captain William Burrows, age twenty-eight. Command of the Enterprise was assumed by Lieutenant Edward McCall. Enterprise casualties were four killed and ten wounded. The dying Lieutenant Burrows declined to accept Commander Blyth's sword. "I am satisfied, I die contented," he said, asking that the sword be sent to the family of Blyth. In later years, Longfellow would recount the battle and the military honors given to the captains in the poem "My Lost Youth":
I remember the sea-fight far away,
How it thundered o'er the tide!
And the dead captains, as they lay In their graves, o'erlooking the tranquil bay,
Where they in battle died.
And the sound of that mournful song Goes through me with a thrill:
"A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."
A state funeral was conducted for the two commanders, who lay at rest side by side in the Eastern Cemetery on Congress Street in Portland, not far from the poet's boyhood home. In a tribute of respect to Captain Blyth, the gravestone was placed at his grave by the crew of the Boxer. Blyth's mahogany coffin and trimmings cost twenty-four dollars, and burial cost was eleven dollars. Also laying at rest next to the captains is Kervin Waters. Wounded in the battle, Waters died about two years later on September 25, 1815. He was rewarded for his bravery with the commission of lieutenant. Waters would live to see the end of the War of 1812. A broadside about the end of war read:
"PEACE CONCLUDED — LET ALL THE PEOPLE THANK GOD, AND SAY AMEN!
THE Committee appointed at a full meeting of the Inhabitants of this town, to adopt suitable measures for a general expression of joy on the return of Peace, having learned officially the cessation of Hostilities, and the ratification of a TREATY OF PEACE, have recommended, that the dawn of this day be welcomed by a National Salute from the Forts in town, and Bells be rung one hour, beginning at sunrise ... That Military companies in town turn out, and fire a fue-de-joie under the direction of Major Storer.
And that Col. Stark, the Commander of this Military post, be requested to join the People of the town and country in celebrating this joyful event by firing a Grand Salute from the Forts under his command. That at noon, national Salutes be fired under the direction of Major WEEKS, and the bells be rung from 12 to 1 o'clock ... and one hour before sun-down ... and the day closed with another National Salute. — That in the evening such of the Inhabitants as can conveniently, will illuminate the windows of their dwelling-houses, to begin with the ringing of the bells at half- past seven, and the lights put out when the bells shall cease, at nine o'clock.
The committee also recommended, that good order be observed, and that houses not illuminated may be attributed to inconvenience or not being occupied. And that the Selectmen appoint a Constable's watch of 24, to guard the town against fire, & preserve order ... No bonfires to be allowed in the streets or lanes in town; and it would be well if none were kindled ... and the people retire to their dwellings at an early hour.
By order of the Committee,
DANIEL TUCKER, CHAIRMAN.
"Banish discord ... PEACE we'll cherish! War has ceas'd ...may COMMERCE flourish!" Portland, February 1815.
Henry was attending a private school by the end of the war, kept by Nathaniel Hazeltine Carter, a Dartmouth graduate. This was not Henry's first school. When he was only three years old, he and older brother, Stephen, attended a school on Spring Street in Portland kept by Ma'am Fellows.
Henry also went to a public school for a short time on Center Street and then went to Mr. Wright's private school and on to the Portland Academy with Mr. N.H. Carter and Mr. Bezaleel Cushman. In 1813, Cushman sent a billet to Stephen and Zipah, writing, "Master Henry Longfellow is one of the best boys we have in school. He spells and reads very well. He also can add and multiply numbers. His conduct last quarter was very correct and amiable." On November 1, 1817, Cushman sent a billet on the progress of the two brothers Stephen and Henry, stating, "Mr. Longfellow Sir: Stephen & Henry have both commenced this quarter with an unusual degree diligence in their studies — Their deportment also is remarkably good — Yours very respectfully B. Cushman." Henry attended the Portland Academy until 1821 and graduated at age fourteen.
At the time the Longfellow boys were attending Mr. Cater and Mr. Bezaleel's Portland Academy, the city of Portland was growing, and the fear of fire was always on the minds of its residents. Twice, fire had affected the Longfellows. In 1814, Stephen's law office sustained a fire, requiring him to move his office into the home, where the dining/sitting room was located. A second fire in the kitchen fireplace badly burned the roof of the house. As a result of the fire damage, and with the family continuing to grow, the idea for a third-floor addition was put into practice, changing the façade of the building to resemble a Federal-style home. While repairs were being finished after the fire at the Portland home, Henry wrote a letter to his father from his grandparents' home, where he was staying with his mother, Zilpah:
HIRAM, AUGUST 1815 Dear Papa, I wish you would tell me in your next letter how the house comes on. And I wish you would bring me a Childs Companion, for Charles Wadsworth. I do not know but I have one at home, but if you buy one I can pay you again. I believe it will cost only nine pence. I thank you for those books you sent me. I have read the riddle book through and learnt several riddles. I like the stories in the other book very well.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland"
Copyright © 2015 John William Babin and Allan Levinsky.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword, by Herb Adams,
Introduction, by Allan M. Levinsky,
The Poet's Birth,
The Poet and the War of 1812,
The Poet and Statehood,
The Poet and College,
The Poet's Letters and Languages,
The Poet's Professorship,
The Poet at Harvard,
Appendix. The Longfellow House: A Tour Guide's Reflections, by Judie Percival,
About the Author,