A President and a Poet


I was taking a leisurely stroll on a late autumn afternoon near Harvard Square when I quite serendipitously stumbled upon a sign that read ‘Longfellow House’. I was standing right in front of the house of one of America’s most celebrated poets whose works I’ve enjoyed since my childhood. I stared in disbelief at the imposing mansion in front of me and decided to take a peek inside. I discovered that it’s a historic home open to the public for tours. The tours are free and are conducted by the National Park Service. The next tour was about to start in fifteen minutes and that’s how I ventured on a literary pilgrimage without seeking it or planning for it in advance. It was a dual pilgrimage for not only was the house the former home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but also served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Boston siege. In fact ‘Longfellow House- Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site’ had known many notable inhabitants but the two most renowned ones as indicated by the sign were the President and the Poet.

Before entering the house, I lingered for a few minutes in the charming formal garden IMG_1530which is patterned after a Persian rug and has a latticed pergola and a sun dial. The moment I set foot in the eighteenth century house, I was transported to the past. The friendly and knowledgeable tour guide enhanced the experience by sharing inside stories and reciting poems at the most opportune moments. Longfellow was initially a tenant in the house formerly known as Vassall- Craigie House and eventually received it as a wedding present from his father-in-law in 1843 when he married Frances (Fanny) Appleton. The furnishings and artifacts of this elegantly appointed house are not reproductions like you find in many historic homes but real items that the Longfellows used in their daily lives. There are amazing antiques, paintings, ceramics, textiles, busts and decorative screens from North America, Europe and Asia. Many of the items were collected by the Longfellows’ eldest son Charles during his exotic travels to China, Japan and India and some of the paintings and portraits gracing the walls were created by their second son Ernest who was an artist. The house with its manuscripts, letters and a collection of more than 14,000 books in over a dozen languages including the works of Dante, Plutarch and Goethe reflects the vast erudition of Longfellow who was a Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard and fluent in many languages. It was while living in the house that he translated Dante’s “Divine Comedy” into English and also wrote many of his well known poems like “Paul Revere’s Ride”, “The Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie.”

The house steeped in history and brimming with poetry will appeal to history buffs as well as to poetry enthusiasts. Though the two eminent men were not contemporaries, the most interesting moments are when their stories entwine. IMG_1543The Longfellows made very few structural changes to the house as they took immense pride in its historical past and its connection to Washington. A marble bust of Washington placed near the staircase in the entry hallway by the couple honors the home’s distinguished history. The cozy study is the same room where Longfellow wrote his poetry and where Washington strategized to drive the British out of Boston. The elegant parlor used by Fanny Longfellow for her social gatherings is the very room where Martha and George Washington hosted a ‘Twelfth Night’ party to celebrate their 17th wedding anniversary. I had two moments that gave me the chills. The first moment was IMG_1548when I stood near the marvelous staircase near the front door and the tour guide told us that we were standing in the very spot through which many famous people had entered the house. In the brief nine months that General Washington lived there before he became the first American President, he entertained visitors such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Hancock and other revolutionaries. Longfellow, in turn, received Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Charles Sumner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Makepeace Thackeray among other luminaries.

The second moment that sent a shudder of excitement down my spine was when I saw the lovely portrait of the Longfellows’ three daughters immortalized by the poet in ‘The Children’s Hour”, a beloved poem that I had memorized and recited during my school days:

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

IMG_1537I could imagine the children running down the stairs “plotting and planning” to take their father by surprise, throwing their arms around him and smothering him with kisses, and, he in turn, promising to keep them enshrined in his heart forever. The house where the Longfellows raised their six children carries within its walls all the memories of an idyllic and blissful family life along with the painful memories of sickness, bouts of mental illness and tragedies like Fanny’s death in a fire accident. A grief-stricken Longfellow wrote “The Cross of Snow” while looking at his wife’s portrait eighteen years after her death:

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.

It’s believed that Fanny Longfellow’s ghost still hovers around the home. Some people who have toured the house claim to have seen a strange apparition of a lady in white in the upstairs bedroom. Longfellow himself expressed this uncanny feeling in his “Haunted Houses”:

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

The spirits in the house “as silent as the pictures on the wall” still linger and imbue the property with their otherworldly presence. As I crossed the hallway to leave the house, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair might descend down the staircase any moment to greet me just as they had their Dad more than a century and a half ago.