The Wind’s Will
March 29: At night, as I lie in bed, a poem comes into my mind,— a memory of Portland,—my native town, the city by the sea.
March 30: Wrote the poem; and am rather pleased with it, and with the bringing in of the two lines of the old Lapland song,
A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s journal, March 1855
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gloried in the knowledge that he was a son of New England, born of solid Colonial stock with roots that traced back to the first permanent settlement at Plymouth in the seventeenth century. His maternal grandfather, General Peleg Wadsworth, was a direct descendant of Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, both of whom figure prominently in The Courtship of Miles Standish, and fought with honor in the American Revolution. He later served as a seven-term Massachusetts congressman representing the District of Maine, living a full eighty-one years, much of it in the foothills of the White Mountains on a seventy-five-hundred-acre estate granted to him in recognition of his distinguished service. “His grandchildren looked with a kind of awe upon his upright form, in the cocked hat and buckled shoes which he continued to wear,” Henry’s younger brother and first biographer, Samuel Longfellow, recalled of the old patriarch. “As they sat in the spacious and breezy hall, they never tired of hearing him tell the thrilling story of his capture by British soldiers, his imprisonment in Fort George at Castine, and his adventurous escape.”
Peleg was born in 1748 in Duxbury, a coastal community thirty-five miles south of Boston that had been founded by his Pilgrim ancestors. After graduating from Harvard College at the age of eighteen, he taught school in Plymouth for three years, and married a local woman, Elizabeth Bartlett, said by a family historian to have been “a lady of eminent piety and uncommon intellectual qualities.” Active in the growing movement toward independence, Peleg formed a regiment of minutemen in 1774 and was given the rank of captain. His participation in a succession of actions earned him command of a six-hundred-man detachment charged with protecting the entire coast of Maine, where he would take up permanent residence at the conclusion of hostilities. Active for many years afterwards in regional politics, he was a leading advocate of statehood, which would be granted in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise.
In 1785, Peleg began building a house near the waterfront of the seaport community known then as Falmouth and, befitting a man of his stature, had several tons of brick shipped up from Philadelphia expressly for the purpose. The town later took the name Portland, and the avenue where the sturdy dwelling still stands was designated Congress Street in 1823. One of Peleg’s eleven children, Navy Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth, served heroically on the USS Intrepid in the Battle of Tripoli during the Barbary Wars, the republic’s first foreign conflict after gaining independence from Britain, and prosecuted under the motto “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.”
A marble cenotaph erected in Portland’s Eastern Cemetery records how the nineteen-year-old junior officer “fell before the walls of Tripoli” on September 4, 1804, “by the explosion of a fire-ship, which he and others gallantly conducted against the enemy,” the sailors choosing “death and the destruction” of their foe “to captivity and torturing slavery.” The last entry in the lad’s shipboard journal—written a few days before their “torpedo attack” on the pirate fleet went disastrously awry—was upbeat: “We are in daily expectation of the Commodore’s arrival from Syracuse, with the gun-boats and bomb-vessels, and then, Tripoli, be on thy guard.” Washed ashore and dragged through the streets of Tripoli, the thirteen dead Americans were tossed in a pit outside the city, the precise location of their burial site not reliably determined until 1949, when memorial markers were installed by a contingent of naval officers from the USS Spokane.
In a death notice published in Portland on January 11, 1805, the recently married Zilpah Longfellow lamented how in “one moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” the beloved brother called Harry by his siblings had “passed from time to eternity, from earth to heaven,” his remains buried in a common grave thousands of miles from home. “Never! O never more, shall my eyes behold him! Never again shall my ears hear the sound of his voice. Oh! My Brother! Thou art laid low. No funeral rites for thee! No afflicted mourners consign thee to the grave. But thou, alone, unheeded, unprepared, was in one moment, slain, and buried. Thou fell the fairest flower that e’er has bloomed: so soon, so suddenly cut down.” Later that year, Zilpah gave birth to her first child, a boy she named Stephen for his father; her second son, born on February 27, 1807, was named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in honor of his heroic uncle.
Another uncle, Commodore Alexander Scammell Wadsworth, Peleg’s firstborn child, made numerous overseas deployments in a distinguished naval career of his own. As a gunnery officer aboard the USS Constitution during the War of 1812, he directed fire in a fierce broadside battle in the North Atlantic with the British frigate HMS Guerriere. Hewn by its Boston shipwrights with the sturdy, seemingly impenetrable timbers of live oak trees, the American warship rendered its much larger foe dead in the water, earning for itself the nickname “Old Ironsides.” In recognition of his valor under fire, Alexander was presented with an engraved silver sword.
When Peleg moved forty miles west of Portland to an isolated village on the Saco River, the dwelling on Congress Street was taken over by Zilpah and her husband, Stephen, an up-and-coming lawyer from nearby Gorham. Henry would occupy a corner room upstairs overlooking the bustling waterfront to the southeast, “the beautiful town that is seated by the sea” that he celebrated years later in his poem “My Lost Youth.” The vibrant community of Henry’s childhood—the “shadowy lines of its trees,” the “black wharves and the slips,” the “bulwarks by the shore,” the “breezy dome of groves”—is evocatively recalled, with a steady stream of “Spanish sailors with bearded lips” strolling the waterfront, firing his imagination of exotic places.
A moment of historical import that took place when the poet was a boy of six, the deafening face-off on September 5, 1813, in Casco Bay of the brig USS Enterprise and HMS Boxer, remained with him for decades. The two opposing skippers, Commander Samuel Blyth of the Royal Navy and American Lieutenant William Burrows, perished during the forty-five-minute encounter off Monhegan Island, which ended with the crippled British hulk being towed into Portland as a prize of war. In an extraordinary gesture of mutual respect among active combatants, the fallen commanders of both ships were buried side by side with full military honors in Eastern Cemetery at the base of Munjoy Hill. American and British seamen marched together near the Longfellow home in “one of the most imposing and impressive scenes ever witnessed in Portland,” according to one account, summoning this reflection in “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.
Wedged between a cluster of commercial buildings in an otherwise modern quarter of the state’s largest city, the Wadsworth-Longfellow House became a museum in 1901 following the death of Henry’s sister Anne Longfellow Pierce, a widow from the age of twenty-three and a resident there for the remainder of her life. It is the oldest standing structure on the Portland peninsula. On the third floor—added seven years after Zilpah and Stephen moved in—faint traces of nineteenth-century graffiti can still be read on the walls and fixtures. One frame bears the inscriptions “How dear is the home of my childhood” and “Friday eve’g July 14th 1837—a magnificent sunset of golden clouds.”
Among the dozens of original furnishings and artifacts on display inside are images of family members executed by professional artists and sculptors in the years before photography became the dominant medium of portraiture. Silhouettes of Peleg and Elizabeth Wadsworth, Stephen and Zilpah Longfellow, formal oils painted on canvas of Henry and his father as young men, a lovely portrait of Anne Longfellow Pierce, and a marble bust of Henry are among the likenesses that decorate every room. Not on display, but included in the Maine Historical Society’s off-site collections, is a miniature painting depicting an adolescent boy with an assured smile and a mane of wavy hair. Painted in 1845 by the noted miniaturist Ann Hall, and based on a sketch from life rendered when Henry was twenty-two, it parallels precisely a physical description of the budding poet as a young man. “Henry is remembered,” Sam Longfellow wrote, “with brown or chestnut hair, blue eyes, a delicate complexion, and rosy cheeks; sensitive, impressionable; active, eager, impetuous, often impatient; quick-tempered, but as quickly appeased; kind-hearted and affectionate,—the sun-light of the house.”
There were eight children in the Longfellow household, four sons and four daughters, with Henry the most motivated to succeed on a grand scale, and the one most empowered by his parents to achieve his ambitious goals. In the numerous letters exchanged with his second- born son, Stephen Longfellow—the third of five Longfellows in as many generations to have that first name—emerges as an upright and caring man, practical and clear-headed in the way he comported his life, and in the moral precepts he impressed upon his family. Though firmly rooted in Maine, he had the wisdom to accept Henry’s eagerness to spread his wings and take flight. After graduating from Harvard in 1798, Stephen practiced law and dabbled in local politics, representing the District of Maine in the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and after statehood was realized, he served single terms in the United States Congress and the Maine State Legislature. In 1825, he formally welcomed the Marquis de Lafayette to Portland during the general’s two-year tour of the United States to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of American independence.
On the cultural front, Stephen Longfellow was a founding member of the Maine Historical Society and an enthusiastic supporter of the Portland Athenaeum. “In the home, there were books and music,” Sam Longfellow tells us, noting that while their father’s library was not large, it “was well selected for the time,” and that Henry had full access to “Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Thomson, Goldsmith; the Spectator, the Rambler, the Lives of the Poets, Rasselas, Plutarch’s Lives; Hume’s, Gibbon’s, Gillies’s and Robertson’s Histories, and the like,” a reading list rich in literature, history, the humanities—all of the liberal arts. Their grandfather Peleg Wadsworth’s home in Hiram, too, was well provisioned with books, and Henry drew eagerly from these springs of enlightenment during frequent summer stays. In 1813, when he was six, his schoolmaster wrote his parents that “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.” We also know that Henry enjoyed playing the flute, and carried the instrument with him to Europe on his first trip abroad.
When it came time for college, Stephen and Zilpah chose nearby Bowdoin, chartered in 1794 and located twenty-five miles away in Brunswick. One of the school’s first overseers had been Henry’s grandfather Judge Stephen Longfellow, of the Court of Common Pleas in Gorham. Henry’s father also became an overseer, and later was a trustee as well, so legacy certainly figured into the decision. But the clincher seems to have been a desire to have their eldest sons together in the same class, and close by, the idea being that Henry—a model of probity and purpose— would keep a watchful eye on his older brother, a personable young man prone to careless behavior. For their freshman year, they did their studies with a private tutor at Portland Academy near their home. They took up residence in Brunswick as sophomores the following fall while their father was in Washington, leaving Zilpah to manage the household affairs; Henry was fifteen and Stephen, seventeen. Still at home with their mother were the six younger Longfellow siblings: Elizabeth (1808– 1829); Anne (1810–1901); Alexander (1814–1901); Mary (1816–1901); Ellen (1818–1834); and Samuel (1819–1892), who would become a Unitarian pastor remembered best today as his brother Henry’s first biographer, and with his devoted friend and collaborator of many years, Samuel Johnson, the author and anthologist of many spiritual and devotional hymns.
Copyright © 2020 by Nicholas A. Basbanes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.