Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Commemorations

December 9, 2012

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Commemorations on Family and Friends

“Yesterday I was at Mount Auburn, and saw my own grave dug; that I, my own tomb. I assure you, I looked quietly down into it, without one feeling of dread. It is a beautiful spot.”

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the previous in a letter to a childhood friend in 1837 after burying his first wife at the Cemetery in a newly-purchased lot on Indian Ridge Path. Before the great poet himself came to be buried at Mount Auburn in 1882, he experienced the deaths of several close family and friends. Longfellow, known as the poet of “Hope, Home and History,” celebrated his own experiences—both good and bad—in poetical verse and the poems written following the deaths of those closest to him illustrate the great significance of these individuals in Longfellow’s life.   Here are a few poems that Longfellow wrote in memory of friends and family who are also buried at Mount Auburn.

Footsteps of Angels

One of the first significant deaths in Longfellow’s life was the death of his first wife, Mary Storer Potter, who died following a miscarriage in 1835. He purchased a lot at Mount Auburn and buried his wife in the lot on Indian Ridge Path.  A few years later, he wrote “Footsteps of Angels” about her.

The Two  Angels

Fellow poet and Harvard professor James Russell Lowell was Longfellow’s friend as well as a neighbor in both life and death. Like Longfellow, Lowell lived along Brattle Street, also described during their lifetime as the “road to Mount Auburn.” The two remain neighbors at Mount Auburn: Lowell’s family lot on Fountain Avenue lies at the base of the slope behind the Longfellow lot.  In 1853 Longfellow dedicated the poem “The Two Angels” to Lowell’s wife, poet Maria White, who died on the same day that Longfellow’s daughter Edith was born.

Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner, the lawyer, abolitionist and US Senator, was Longfellow’s closest friend. Sumner’s death in March of 1874 was a particularly hard for Longfellow to take, as evidenced from a note in his diary written on April 2 of that year:“I have been trying to write something about Sumner, but to little purpose. I cannot collect my faculties.” He was finally able to pen a fitting tribute to a great friend and a national hero, which was first published in January of 1875.

Cross of Snow

The most significant tragedy in Longfellow’s life was the death of his second wife, Fanny Appleton, who died in 1861 from the burns she suffered after her dress caught on fire. Still grieving the death of his soul mate eighteen years later, Longfellow penned “Cross of Snow” on the anniversary of her death.

Three Friends of Minea set of 5 sonnets

Longfellow outlived most of his friends including the three he considered his closest: Cornelius Felton, Louis Agassiz and Charles Sumner. Written towards the end of Longfellow’s life, this set of five sonnets, written about his dearest friends, is a touching tribute to those who “have forgotten the pathway to [his] door.”  


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