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In A Brown Study, 19 D

October 29, 2016

“Thy fate is the common fate of all./ Into each life some rain must fall.”

In 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his journal, “Lincoln is elected.– Freedom is triumphant.” Then three states seceded from the Union, and civil war was upon the country. Longfellow believed slavery was an abomination, and its abolition worth a fight. Like most New Englanders, he believe the war would be quickly over. He was wrong.

On a summer afternoon in 1861, Fanny Longfellow dropped hot wax on her dress, and the dress burst into flames. Desperately Henry tried to extinguish the flames. He tried to wrap his wife in a rug, but the rug was too small. He tried to protect her with his own body, but his face and hands were severely burned. His wife died the next day. Henry, suffering from severe burns, was not able to attend the funeral, and could never shave again. He wore a long beard for the rest of his life, but his life had been shattered beyond repair. He wrote to Fanny’s sister, “She never came into a room where I was without my heart beating quicker, nor went our without my feeling that something of the light went with her. I loved her so entirely.”

The Civil War had begun. “The days passed in dull monotony, and the war goes on,” he wrote in 1862. Son Charley, then 18, enlisted in the army and soon developed “camp fever” (probably malaria). Longfellow went to Washington to attend his son’s illness, and when Charlie returned to the battlefield, Longfellow worried and kept busy writing his poems. Then Charlie was wounded, and Longfellow returned to Washington to take Charlie home. At the end of the war Henry began his revision of Dante’s Divine Comedy. He completed it on his 60th birthday.

In the last ten years of Longfellow’s life, he continued to be creative and productive. Gleefully embarrassed, he received $3,000 for his poem “The Hanging of the Crane,” an enormous sum at the time, verifying that he had become an American institution, not unlike England’s Tennyson.

On his 72nd birthday, a delighted Longfellow received a present from the children of Cambridge, a beautiful armchair made from the wood of the Village Blacksmith’s chestnut tree. On a March afternoon in 1882, surrounded by a loving family, Longfellow died.

Generations of children have had Longfellow’s poems thrust upon them to be memorized. Longfellow seems to be a solemn, preachy, old gentleman with a beard, and this kind of damage is hard to repair. When you return as an adult, you may find him chatty, friendly, and amusing. The beard may still be off-putting.

“The day is done, and the darkness falls from the wings of night, as the feather is wafted downward from an eagle in its flight. And the night shall be filled with music, and the cares that infest the day, shall fold their tents like the Arabs, and as silently steal away.”

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