When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote these lines perhaps he was thinking of the home of his boyhood in Portland, which his grandfather, General Peleg Wadsworth, built in 1785.
The house was the wonder of the town, for it was the first brick building erected there. The brick had been brought from Virginia. Originally there were but two stories; the third story was added when the future poet was eight years old.
Longfellow was born in the house at the corner of Fourth and Hancock streets, but he was only eight months old when he was carried within the inviting front doors of the Wadsworth house, and the mansion was home to him for at least thirty-five years.
He was only five years old when he declared that he wanted to be a soldier and fight for his country. The War of 1812 was then in progress. His aunt wrote one day, ” Our little Henry is ready to march; he had his gun prepared and his head powdered a week ago.”
But, agreeing with his parents that school was a better place for him than the army, he began his studies when he was five years old. A year later his teacher gave him a certificate which read:
” Master Henry Longfellow is one of the best boys we have in school. He spells and reads very well. He also can add and multiply numbers. His conduct last quarter was very correct and amiable.”
Life in the Longfellow home was delightful. Samuel Longfellow, the poet’s brother, has given a pleasing picture:
” In the evenings the children gathered with their books and slates round the table in the family sitting room. The silence would be broken for a minute by the long, mysterious blast of a horn announcing the arrival in town of the evening mail, then the rattle of its passing wheels, then silence again, save the singing of the wood fire. Studies over, there would be games till bedtime. If these became too noisy, or the father had brought home his law papers from the office, enjoining strictest quiet, then there was flight to another room perhaps, in winter, to the kitchen, where hung the crane over the coals in the broad old fireplace, upon whose iron back a fish forever baked in effigy.
” When bedtime came, it was hard to leave the warm fire to go up into the unwarmed bedrooms; still harder next morning to get up out of the comfortable feather beds and break the ice in the pitchers for washing. But hardship made hardihood. In summer it was pleasant enough to look out from the upper windows; those of the boys’ room looked out over the Cove and the farms and woodlands toward Mount Washington, full in view on the western horizon; while the eastern chambers commanded a then unobstructed view of the bay, White Head, Port Prebble, and the lighthouse on Cape Elizabeth.”
One day in 1820, when the family was gathered about the fire, Henry was on tiptoe with eager excitement. He had written a poem and had sent it to The Portland
Gazette. Would it be in the paper which his father had in his hand as he seated himself before the fire? Robertson, in his life of the poet, has described those anxious moments :
How carefully his father unfolded the damp sheet, and how carefully he dried in at the fire ere beginning to read it ! And how much foreign news there seemed to be in it ! At last Henry and a sympathetic sister who shared his secret, obtained a peep over their parent’s shoulderand the poem was there!”
There are sixteen rooms in the old house. In Henry’s day these rooms were heated by eight fireplaces, which consumed thirty cords of wood during the long winter.
On the first floor are the great living-room, the kitchen with its old fireplace, and the den, once the dining-room. On the desk still shown in this room Longfellow wrote, in 1841, ” The Rainy Day,” whose opening lines are:
“The day is cold, and dark, and dreary, It rains, and the wind is never weary ; The vine still clings to the mouldering wall, But at every gust the dead leaves fall, And the day is dark and dreary.”
Into the ground floor rooms have been gathered many relics of the days when the poet was a boy. The four rooms of the second floor are also full of mementoes. But the most interesting part of the house is the third story, where there are seven rooms. To this floor the four children made their way on summer nights when the long hours of daylight invited them to stay up longer, and on winter evenings, when the fire downstairs seemed far. more inviting than the cold floors and the colder sheets.
‘ One of these rooms is pointed out as the poet’s chamber. Here he wrote many of his earlier poems. Among these was ” The Lighthouse.” In this he described sights in which he delighted, sights the lighthouse daily witnessed :
“And the great ships sail outward and return Bending and bowing o’er the billowing swell, And ever joyful as they see it burn, They wave their silent welcome and farewell.
” `Sail on,’ it says, `sail on, ye stately ships! And with your floating bridge the ocean span; Be mine to guard the light from all eclipse, Be yours to bring man nearer unto man.’ ”
During the years after 1843, when Longfellow bought the Craigie House at Cambridge, his thoughts turned back with longing to the old home and the old town, and he wrote :
“Often I think of the beautiful town That is seated by the sea; Often in thought go up and down The pleasant streets of the dear old town, And my youth comes back to me.”
For nineteen years after the poet’s death his sister Ann, Mrs. Pierce, lived in the old home. When she died, in 1901, she deeded it to the Maine Historical Society, that the place might be made a permanent memorial of the life of The Children’s Poet.