“Under the spreading chestnut tree,
The village smithy stands
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.”
Those lines from “The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow can probably be recognized, if not recited, by many Americans. Midwesterners will know:
“By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.”
Those lines from “The Song of Hiawatha” are not the beginning of the poem, as many people think, but just a small part of a very long epic poem featuring Hiawatha, Nokomis, Nawadaha, and Wenonah, taken from the legends and stories collected by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, and using the meter of the Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807, in Portland, Maine. His father intended that Henry should follow in his footsteps as a lawyer, but when Henry graduated from Bowdoin College at age 19, the college asked him to be the first professor in their new department of modern languages. He was allowed to travel through Europe first, studying, and when he returned he asked the girl of his dreams to marry him and he taught the literature of the Romance languages, Germany, Norway, and Iceland. He created his own textbooks, because these topics had not yet been taught in the United States.
In 1834, Longfellow was given an appointment to Harvard. He and his wife set out for Europe before he took up his position; his wife died tragically in Rotterdam. When Longfellow returned and moved to Cambridge, he went to live as a boarder at Craigie house. Seven years later, he married the daughter of the owner of Craigie House, Francis Appleton, and the young couple were given Craigie House as a gift. It soon became the cultural center of Cambridge. Longfellow wrote “Evangeline,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” as well as many other poems.
When the “spreading chestnut tree” of Brattle Street had to be cut down, the school children in Cambridge collected their pennies to have a chair made out of the tree’s wood and they presented it to Longfellow as a tribute. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow died on March 24, 1882.