Longfellow’s Epiphany is a heart-rending story about how the poet’s faith was renewed after many years of sorrow and illness.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (February 27, 1807 – March 24, 1882) was the most popular American poet of his day. On December 25th 1864 he composed the words to a Christmas carol, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”, which contains the powerful healing experience of Longfellow’s epiphany. As in every year, he heard Christmas bells, however, on that particular Christmas day, something struck deeper in his soul and he wrote his song, it was Longfellow’s epiphany.
Longfellow’s most famous work was “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie”. It is an epic poem written in English and published in 1847. The poem is about an Acadian girl named Evangeline and follows the search for her lost love Gabriel. The poem is set during the time of the Expulsion of the Acadians. Evangeline is a heart-rending story of an enduring love which is powerful and eternal. It is so beautifully written with such deep emotion that it pulls the reader right into the life of Evangeline and enables the reader to experience every nuance of her feelings, faith and amazing strength. Evangeline is a story of a love that will restore in the heart of many the beauty and sincerity of a true, spiritual love which time and distance cannot diminish.
Longfellow personally knew and experienced such a deep and lasting love with his first wife Mary who died in 1835, then with his wife Fanny, who died tragically in 1861.
Longfellow’s first wife, Mary Storer Potter, died in 1835 after a miscarriage. They were married in 1831. He was deeply saddened by her death and wrote: “One thought occupies me night and day … She is dead – She is dead! All day I am weary and sad.” Three years later, he was inspired to write the poem “Footsteps of Angels” about her.
In 1836 Longfellow began a courtship with Francis Appleton. He was very much in love with Francis, but, she did not have the same feelings and was quite frosty towards him. In late 1839, Longfellow published Hyperion, a prose romance about a man who was rejected by the woman he loved. The work was inspired by his trips abroad and his unsuccessful courtship of Fanny. Amidst this, he fell into “periods of neurotic depression with moments of panic” and took a six-month leave of absence from Harvard to attend a health spa in the former Marienberg Benedictine Convent at Boppard in Germany.
In 1843 Longfellow was again blessed with love when Fanny agreed to marry him. His love for Fanny is evident in the following lines from his only love poem, the sonnet “The Evening Star” which he wrote in October 1845: “O my beloved, my sweet Hesperus! My morning and my evening star of love!” He once attended a ball without her and noted, “The lights seemed dimmer, the music sadder, the flowers fewer, and the women less fair.”
Longfellow and Fanny had six children: Charles Appleton (1844–1893), Ernest Wadsworth (1845–1921), Fanny (1847–1848), Alice Mary (1850–1928), Edith (1853–1915), and
Anne Allegra (1855–1934).
On July 9, 1861, Fanny put locks of her children’s hair in an envelope and attempted to use hot sealing wax to seal it closed. Somehow, her dress caught fire. Longfellow heard her screams and rushed in to help her. He tried to stifle the flames with a small rug to no avail. He the stifled them with his own body by hugging her. Fanny had been so badly burned and died the next morning. Longfellow had also been badly burned and could not attend her funeral due to severe wounds.
Longfellow was devastated by her death and never fully recovered; he occasionally resorted to laudanum and ether to deal with his grief. He worried that he would go insane, begging “not to be sent to an asylum” and noting that he was “inwardly bleeding to death”. He expressed his grief in the sonnet “The Cross of Snow” (1879) which he wrote 18 years later to commemorate her death:
“Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.”
Another tragedy for Longfellow happened in the 1860s when his son was severely injured during the Civil War. He then wrote the poem “Christmas Bells”, later the basis of the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. After years of sorrow and depression had touched his life, Longfellow’s epiphany brought peace to him. His love for Mary and Fanny was as strong as ever, yet Longfellow’s epiphany gave him renewed faith.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died on March 24, 1882. He was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, next to both his beloved wives.
© 2018 Phyllis Doyle Burns