Until the third decade of the 19th century, America had little literature to call its own. Fireside poets represented a “coming of age” for the young country, as a first generation of poets took their name from the popularity of their works which were widely read as family entertainment (and in the schoolroom). These poets chose uniquely American settings and subjects, themes, and imagery; however, there format and structure were borrowed from English tradition. Though not innovative, they were literary giants of their day, and by examining their poems for images of American daily life, politics and nature we can see the beginnings of the Romantic writings that follow.
You will be examining the poetry of fireside poets – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendall Holmes, James Russell Lowell and William Cullen Bryant.
The Mount of the Holy Cross – Colorado
Longfellow is by far the most famous of the Fireside Poets. No other American poet, not even Robert Frost, has matched Longfellow’s popularity at the height of his career. A bust of Longfellow was placed in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey (alongside Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. Longfellow was a classmate of Nathaniel Hawthorn. He believed his task was to create in memorable form a common heritage for Americans and in the process to create an audience for poetry. His first wife Mary Potter died in 1835 after a miscarriage. His second wife Frances Appleton died in 1861 after sustaining burns when her dress caught fire. Longfellow sustained severe burns to his face trying to put out the flames, which he hid under his beard afterwards. His severe grief over her death meant he wrote less, and instead translated his previously written poetry into other languages.
William Cullen Bryant wrote poems, essays, and articles that championed the rights of workers and immigrants. In 1829, Bryant became editor in chief of the New York Evening Post, a position he held until his death in 1878. His influence helped establish important New York civic institutions such as Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1884, New York City’s Reservoir Square, at the intersection of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, was renamed Bryant Park in his honor. “Thanatopsis,” if not the best-known American poem abroad before the mid nineteenth century, certainly ranked near the top of the list, and at home school children were commonly required to recite it from memory. At his death, all New York City went into mourning for its most respected citizen.
John Greenleaf Whittier was the son of two devout Quakers, he grew up on the family farm and had little formal schooling. From 1831 until the Civil War, he wrote essays and articles as well as poems, almost all of which were concerned with abolition. In 1833 he wrote Justice and Expedience urging immediate abolition of slavery. Whittier founded the antislavery Liberty party in 1840 and ran for Congress in 1842. While Whittier’s critics never considered him to be a great poet, they thought him a nobel and kind man whose verse gave unique expression to ideas they valued. The Civil War inspired the famous poem, “Barbara Frietchie,” but the important change in his work came after the war. From 1865 until his death in 1892, Whittier wrote of religion, nature, and rural life; he became the most popular Fireside poets.
James Russell Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of the Reverend Charles Lowell and Harriet Spence. An ardent abolitionist, Lowell published widely in many anti-slavery newspapers, such as the Pennsylvania Freeman and the Anti-Slavery Standard. He also published a number of literary essays, political pamphlets, and satirical works. In 1853, Lowell’s wife and three of their four children fell ill and died. Two years later, he returned to Harvard to replace Longfellow as professor of modern languages and literature. He spent the following year traveling and studying in Europe, then returned to Harvard to teach for the next twenty years. Known for his politics and personal charm, Lowell was appointed to the position of United States Minister to Spain in 1877, then served as United States Minister to England from 1880 to 1885.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was an American physician and poet from Boston. A member of the Fireside Poets, he was acclaimed by his peers as one of the best writers of the day. He was also an important medical reformer. He began writing poetry at an early age; one of his most famous works, “Old Ironsides”, was published in 1830 and was influential in the eventual preservation of the USS Constitution. Following training at the prestigious medical schools of Paris, Holmes was granted his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1836. He taught at Dartmouth Medical School before returning to teach at Harvard and, for a time, served as dean there. During his long professorship, he became an advocate for various medical reforms and notably posited the controversial idea that doctors were capable of carrying diseases to their patients if they didn’t take precautions and properly sanitize. Holmes retired from Harvard in 1882 and continued writing poetry, novels and essays until his death in 1894.
Below you will find the link to the poems you will be analyzing. Remember, you need to not only analyze the poem in depth, but be sure to make connections between the content of these poems and the themes of the Romantic period. You will also be completing a project with these poems – the instructions and assignment is attached below as well.
Click here to access the poems in case you lost your hardcopy from class.
Click here to access the assignment and grading rubric.
Click here for an annotated copy of the poems.