LDS World: Healing through Jesus Christ: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow offers timely lessons in wake of tragedy

Published: Sunday, Dec. 23 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

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By all accounts, Newtown, Conn., is a lovely New England town, picture-perfect Norman Rockwell, with a flagpole and town square where residents gathered only a few weeks ago to light the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols. Perhaps they even sang, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow spent most of his life in a beautiful New England village — in 19th-century Cambridge, Mass. The parallels do not stop there. Longfellow also experienced personal tragedy that bore him down and left him bereft and shattered.

The magnitude of deaths in Newtown can do nothing less than haunt any human being capable of feeling and perception. But when all is said and done these killings are personal tragedies that must be confronted on an individual level. In this respect, the parallels between Longfellow’s wrestle with suffering and loss perhaps reflects that of the families and friends dealing with the inexplicable slaughter in Newtown, now confronting the loneliness and futility of those deaths.

Longfellow was the most popular poet of his day, widely read at home and abroad during his lifetime. So beloved was he that in 1884 he became the only non-British writer to have a bust commissioned and placed in Poet’s Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey. Adored by young people, when word spread that the tree he called a “spreading Chestnut tree” in his poem “The Village Blacksmith” had fallen down, a chair was commissioned and presented to Longfellow by the children of Cambridge.

These happy events, however, do not tell the story of Longfellow’s life.

A dreamy child, Longfellow loved books and yearned to be a literary talent. He attended Bowdoin College and afterward traveled to Europe to study modern languages. Upon his return he began teaching at Bowdoin and in 1831 married Mary Storer Potter. During a second period of study in Europe word reached him that his wife of three years had died after miscarrying their child. He returned stateside, grief-stricken, and took up a solitary existence until introduced to Frances Appleton. Frances became his muse and after seven years of refusals finally consented to marriage.

Together they had six children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Longfellow adored his wife and children and as he settled into family life he retired from teaching at Harvard University to devote himself to full-time writing.

Simultaneously, North-South tensions increased and Longfellow joined the abolition movement, watching with sadness the inevitable march toward the U.S. Civil War. In 1861 not only did that conflict explode, but personal tragedy shattered Longfellow. Toward the end of the year his beloved wife’s dress caught fire, possibly from a candle she was using to melt wax to seal her daughter’s locks in an envelope.

Longfellow was napping. As she ran screaming into his room he tried first to suffocate the flames with a small rug, then to smother them by taking Frances in his arms. The next morning, however, she died. Severely burned himself, and grief-stricken, Longfellow did not attend her funeral.

The first Christmas after her death Longfellow wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” On another occasion he described himself to a friend as “inwardly bleeding to death.” Nearly a year after Frances’ passing he penned, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

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