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Poetry Landmark: The Longfellow House in Cambridge, MA

 

Poetry Landmark: The Longfellow House in Cambridge, MA

Before Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even moved in, his Cambridge home—built in 1759 of high-Georgian architecture—had already taken its place in American history. Its first owner, John Vassal, was a British sympathizer who fled at the Revolution’s outset, in 1775, making the residence available to General George Washington and the Continental Army. Washington and his wife, Martha, lived there until April 1776; Benjamin Franklin and Abigail and John Adams were among their houseguests.

In 1791, the house was purchased by Andrew Craigie, the first Apothecary General of the United States. However, his failed real estate dealings left him bankrupt at death, so his widow was forced to take in boarders and sell all but three of the estate’s 140 acres. One of her boarders, beginning in 1837, was Longfellow. In 1843, the house changed hands again after the father of Longfellow's bride, Frances Appleton, purchased the home as a wedding gift for the new couple.

The Longfellows and their six children occupied the house for almost forty years and entertained such houseguests as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Charles Dickens. Within the study, standing at a podium near a window overlooking the Charles River, Longfellow wrote many of his poems, including "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and "Song of Hiawatha."

Tragedy befell the household one night in 1861 when a candle accidentally set Frances's dress on fire, the injuries from which proved fatal. Longfellow mourned her for years, never more poignantly than in the poem "The Cross of Snow," written in 1879:

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face—the face of one long dead—
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died, and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
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.

Preserved for years by Longfellow’s descendants, the house is now maintained by the National Park Service, in collaboration with the Friends of the Longfellow House. Open to the public, the Longfellow House contains the poet’s expansive library, thousands of letters, original colonial furniture, a collection of nineteenth-century artwork by American and European painters, as well as a unique collection of Asian art and literature, indicative of the value international cultures held for the Longfellows. For hours and more information, visit the National Park Service website.








Photo courtesy of the Friends of the Longfellow House.
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