On our last full day in New England, before heading off to LLBean, I joined a morning tour of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, located right in the middle of Portland on Congress Street. The house is not his birthplace. Although he was born in Portland that house has now been demolished.
“Faithfully restored to the 1850s, the Wadsworth-Longfellow House was the childhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Built in 1785-86 by the poet’s grandfather, the house is decorated with original furnishings and family memorabilia. Tours offer a unique glance into the poet’s family, as well as into the cultural and social history of mid-19th century Portland.” [Information Board outside the house]
Yet again I enjoyed an entertaining and informative tour. No photography was allowed but there are pictures and descriptions of the rooms on the website and postcards of a selection were available in the excellent bookshop attached to the house.
Postcard shows the interior of Wadsworth-Longfellow House
Zilpa’s Sampler (still on display in the house)
Peleg (love that name!) and Elizabeth Wadsworth, Henry’s grandparents, built the house in 1785-86 and Henry, born in February 1807, lived there from just a few months later throughout his childhood. With 9 siblings his father Stephen (and mother Zilpa) extended the house by adding another floor. Henry entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME in 1822. After graduation in 1825 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where his home there is also a national historical monument and open to the public : Longfellow National Historic Site, 105, Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. He made regular return visits to his family home although, except for once, he and his wife never actually stayed there overnight.
Henry’s sister Anne lived here for almost all her long life; and when she died in 1901 left the house to the Maine Historical Society (MHS) requesting that the rooms “be kept with appropriate articles for a memorial of the Home of Longfellow” insisting that certain items be left where they had been during Henry’s residence.
There were interesting displays in the museum next door concerning the Emergence and History of Portland and about the Wadsworth-Longfellow Family.
I also learned that :
In 1884, Longfellow became the first non-British writer for whom a commemorative sculpted bust was placed in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in London; he remains the only American poet represented with a bust. [Wikipedia]
“The over life-size white marble bust of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was unveiled in Poets’ Corner Westminster Abbey in 1884, on a pillar near to the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer. It is by the sculptor Sir Thomas Brock and the main inscription reads:
“LONGFELLOW. This bust was placed amongst the memorials of the poets of England by the English admirers of an American poet.1884″
On the left and right sides of the plinth is inscribed:
“Born at Portland, U.S.A. February 27th 1807. Died at Cambridge, U.S.A. March 24th 1882”.
Longfellow’s ancestor, William Longfellow, had emigrated to New England in 1676 from Yorkshire. His parents were Stephen, a lawyer, and Zilpah. Henry taught at Harvard University and his prose romance Hyperion was published in 1839 after the death of his first wife. Ballads and other Poems includes ‘The Village Blacksmith’ and ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’. The Song of Hiawatha is one of his best known works and he was second only to Lord Tennyson in popularity. His grave is in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A photograph of his bust can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
“England’s homage to Longfellow” by E.C.Lathem, 2007”
[source of text and photo]
Before the tour, after the tour or at any time during opening hours anyone may visit the Longfellow Garden behind the house.
“The secluded Longfellow Garden located behind the House is an oasis of green and quiet in the heart of downtown Portland. Beautifully landscaped, the public is welcome.” [Information Board]
Looking back up the garden towards the house
The members of the Longfellow Garden Club have tended this oasis of peace and calm in the centre of the bustling city of Portland for 90 years. These volunteers weed the beds, prune the overgrowth, plant annuals, maintain the soil and much much more. In 1924 Mrs Pearl Wing set about restoring the garden. She encouraged the local community to help her and to donate plants and create a fountain in the garden. She also established the bye-laws and operating principles of the Club.
Present day fountain
Naturally, there have been changes in the area and garden surroundings since then. Until 1980 the garden was only visited by those touring the house but the Club convinced the MHS to allow public access during house opening hours. It is a popular quiet retreat and “hidden treasure”.
Read more about the life and works of the author of The Song of Hiawatha (possibly his best-known work here in the UK) here and see whether you can recognise his many quotations here.
“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books”