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Saturday, February 28, 2009

PORTLAND, MAINE - HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW'S HOME


Our visit to Maine led us to Portland’s Wadsworth Longfellow House, the home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow until he left to teach at Bowdoin College.

The home has been painstakingly restored by the Maine Historical Society whose headquarters are located next door. Our very knowledgeable and enthusiastic docent is a member of the society. The home had been donated to the society by Longfellow’s daughter, Ann, who died in 1902. Most of the furnishings are original, and those reproductions such as wallpaper, carpeting, floor coverings, and curtains have been carefully reproduced based on notes, letter, and remaining artifacts.

There are quite a few pieces that really catch the interest as well as the imagination. The house belonged to Longfellow’s grandfather who served with George Washington during the Revolutionary War. In the house are three important examples of his high regard for Washington. The first is an engraving of Washington on horseback; the second is a pitcher decorated with Washington’s portrait and regarded as such a treasure that it was used only at Christmas; the third is an engraving of Washington ascending to heaven. These three artifacts tell an entire story of a man’s feelings.

Some of the furnishings were brought up from Longfellow’s home in Cambridge when he was a professor at Harvard. Included in this group are his Chickering piano and his flute. The poet, famous for “Song of Hiawatha,” “The Children’s Hour,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and other familiar poems, was also an accomplished musician.

I learned quite a bit about Longfellow, so highly regarded that a plaque honoring him has a place in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, a place where I’ve stood in awe at the great men and women represented in that shrine.

On the walls of the house hang pictures of the older Longfellow, the one we’re familiar—a stern man sporting a long, flowing white beard. What I didn’t know was the tragic story behind that beard.

Longfellow’s second wife used wax to seal envelopes filled with locks of her children’s hair. As she did this one day, her dress caught fire, and though Longfellow tried to smother the flames, she was so severely burned she died the following day. He did not escape unscathed. His neck and face were also burned to such an extent that shaving became almost impossible, hence the flowing beard. And the constant reminder.

Pulling out my dusty and taped copy of Longfellow’s poetry that I inherited from my father, I’ll undoubtedly enjoy the time spent with him even more because of this visit. If you’re in Portland, perhaps taking the ferry to Canada or enjoying a visit to this state, make sure you take some time to visit Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home.

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