The “Historical” Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Henry W. Longfellow, head and shoulders portrait [between 1900 and 1912]. Prints and Photographs Division.

Henry W. Longfellow, head and shoulders portrait [between 1900 and 1912].
Prints and Photographs Division.

In the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in London, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is the only non-British writer to be honored with a bust.But how well do students today know Longfellow and his poetry?

Begin the lesson by asking students if they are familiar with Longfellow. Follow up by asking if they can name a poem he wrote. Chances are most students will not have heard of Longfellow or any of his poems, but they may know either “Paul Revere’s Ride,” or “Song of Hiawatha,” two of Longfellow’s best known works. The former depicts events in April 1775 before the start of fighting in the American Revolution. The latter is based on the oral traditions of groups native to Longfellow’s home near Boston, Mass. Both include incorrect or flawed depictions that may prompt conversation and curiosity about the “real” events.

Introduce Longfellow by reading this obituary (column 5) published a week after his death in 1882. Ask students to mark elements of the obituary that illustrate the esteem with which Longfellow was held. Discuss his significance to readers as illustrated by the obituary and the presence of his bust in Westminster Abbey. This may also be an excellent time to talk about the role of poetry before entertainment was available through radio, television, or movies. Knowing the popularity of poetry and the influence of Longfellow will help students as they read one or both of the poems and engage in discussion of the poet’s historical inaccuracies. Engaging with the poems also presents an opportunity for cross-curricular collaboration with social studies, particularly courses on American history.

Below are ways to approach a study of the poems and their historical counterparts:

  • Read “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Compare Longfellow’s account of the events with that of a reliable historical source. Discuss the differences and the possible motivations for Longfellow’s inaccuracies. Ask students why this poem and other fictionalized accounts of historical events may be harmful. As an extension, ask students to revise the poem to more accurately depict the events.
  • Read “Song of Hiawatha.” Next read this award winning student essay (column 2) about the poem. Ask students how it illustrates the harm caused by Longfellow’s depiction of American Indians. A deeper discussion of the treatment of American Indians may be prompted by the items in the primary source set Assimilation in Education. Follow this with research about the American Indians who most likely served as the model for Longfellow’s work. Rewrite the poem to tell an accurate and respectful story.
  • Ask students, in relation to both poems: Are poets or any artists obligated to be factual? Why or why not?

What other poems or stories lend themselves to comparison with historical counterparts?

3 Comments

  1. Sherry L.
    April 27, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful post!

  2. Charlie Hosey
    February 18, 2017 at 4:52 am

    Who wrote poem called If ?

  3. Peter Armenti
    March 16, 2017 at 3:41 pm

    Dear Charlie,

    The most famous poem titled “If” was written by Rudyard Kipling. Its text can be found on many websites, including the Academy of American Poets website. If this is not the correct poem, or you need additional information about it, please let me know.

    Peter

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