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The Fireside Poets  

During the 19th century in the United States, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John G. Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James R. Lowell were popular poets. They were often read by the fireside of homes throughout America
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

 

The Fireside Poets

During the 19th century in the United States, five poets were widely popular-their poems were often read and recited to families in the comfort of living rooms. In this pre-Internet and television age, families entertained themselves by reciting stories and poems as well as singing and playing musical instruments.  The poets were William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier and Oliver Wendell Holmes.   They were not innovative writers.  Their poems were easy to understand and balanced.  As one critic noted, these poets were not alienated from society, their verses were pleasing to the ear.  They wrote of nature or American historical themes.  "Their poetry did not disturb the genial warmth of the fireside or the earnest striving for improvement of the schoolroom," as a critic wrote.  While not highly regarded today, these five men made significant contributions to American literature.

The most famous of these poets is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.   Born in Portland, Maine in 1807, Longfellow was educated at Bowdoin College.  Skilled in languages from an early age, he taught modern languages at Bowdoin and Harvard.   After he left Harvard in 1854, he devoted himself to writing.  "The Village Blacksmith" is a famous poem as well as the long narrative poems "Evangeline", "The Song of Hiawatha", and "The Courtship of Miles Standish." Longfellow's poems were very popular in the 19th century.  Some of his poems are still read in modern day classrooms and the simple, clear style is appreciated.  He died in 1882.  In 1884, a bust of Longfellow was placed in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London, the first American to be honored in such a way.

James Russell Lowell was born in 1819 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was educated at Harvard University and Harvard Law School. His first volume of poems was published in 1841.  In 1855 he became professor of modern languages at Harvard, serving until 1876.  He was the first editor of "The Atlantic Monthly."  He wrote other volumes of verse in the 1870's.  He was the minister to Spain and Great Britain.  He died in 1891.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Cambridge in 1809  He was educated at Harvard College and Harvard Medical School.  For over 30 years he taught at Harvard Medical School.  He was instrumental in advancing the use of aseptic techniques in obstetrics and surgery.   Holmes was one of the Boston Brahmins, a group of cultivated, sophisticated Bostonians.  He was not a snobby man.  His poems and essays are light and witty  Perhaps his most well known poem is "Old Ironsides."    He died in 1894.

John Greenleaf Whittier was born in 1807 and unlike three of the other Fireside Poets, he was mostly self-educated.  He was a devout Quaker, who was also involved with politics.  He participated in the founding of the Republican Party .  For more than 30 years he devoted himself to the abolition of slavery.  His poems celebrate the farm life of New England.   His masterpiece is the narrative poem "Snow-Bound."  He died in 1892.

William Cullen Bryant was born in 1794 and was the oldest of these 5 poets.  He wrote his best poetry in his younger years.  He is the author of "Thanatopsis.", "Green River", "To a Waterfowl" and other poems.  His poems were widely read.  In 1825 he moved to New York City and became a journalist.  He worked for many causes, especially free speech, the rights of workers and the abolition of slavery.  He was also instrumental in organizing the Republican Party.  While he produced several volumes of poetry in his later years, poetry was an avocation for him.  He is best remembered for his descriptions of the countryside in western Massachussetts.  His translations of the "Illiad" and the "Odyssey" are still read and respected.  He died in 1878.

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