Classroom Issues and Strategies
If students have encountered Longfellow before taking a college course, the poems they know are not in this anthology: Evangeline, The Song of Hiawatha, The Courtship of Miles Standish. The Longfellow of this anthology is our late twentieth-century "revisionist" Longfellow, and except in poems such as "A Psalm of Life," he is almost unrecognizable as a writer who might have written those famous poems. If students have not actually read Longfellow, but merely heard of him (the typical case), they want to know why he's so famous.
Longfellow is accessible, and the fact is that in almost any class there will be students who adore "A Psalm of Life" and students who cannot stand it. Such a division, of course, presents the teacher with an ideal point of departure.
Although Longfellow is now very unfashionable, he is nevertheless an excellent vehicle for teaching about poetry either to the unlimited or the turned-off.
Oddly enough, students in general respond to the story of his life almost more readily than to his poetry. That, therefore, is a good place to begin. They often ask about his fame. Some respond very positively to his sentimentalism, which can be tricky.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Longfellow's themes in the poems in this collection are nearly indistinguishable from those of his contemporaries in England. It's useful to show him, therefore, as an example of the branch of American literature that created itself in admiring imitation of English literature. He is also that rare thing, a genuine celebrity of a poet, whose fame has subsided and whose stature has shrunk accordingly. Many of the poems we now admire most are from his later years, and conform better to modern taste than the poems for which...