Over the past two hundred years, there have been several shifts and changes in what constitutes a family. This is especially true when speaking of gender roles, parental relationships, and other various responsibilities in, and outside of, the home. One of these main roles is the role of the father. Fatherhood has been speculated and argued about for matters concerning responsibility, love, status, etc., and it seems that there is not a lot of agreement about what truly constitutes the father. Interestingly, the subject of the father, and the importance of fatherhood, seems to be a common theme in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetry. Longfellow, a father of six children, often creates characters in his poems that are fathers, and that are dealing with their own sorts of struggles. He even writes a few poems with himself and his own children as the main subjects. Longfellow, like all other writers, was influenced by his time. There were certain attitudes and expectations about fathers that were being passed around during the nineteenth century, and Longfellow was definitely immersed in these kinds of arguments and beliefs. Longfellow’s use of the father and fatherhood are best seen in “The Wreck of Hesperus,” “The Village Blacksmith,” and “The Children’s Hour.” These poems all reflect the different values and beliefs of the time about fathers and fatherhood, along with Longfellow’s individual beliefs.
Christianity provided a central organizing idea for the nineteenth century American family. Practicing, devout Christians took these beliefs seriously, and tried to maintain a good Christian family. During the 1830s-1840s, commentators had created an ideal of Christian fatherhood (Frank 24). A good father was seen as a companionate husband who provided his wife with the material means and the warm emotional atmosphere she needed to carry out her essential role as mother (25); while an ideal husband was one who was a practicing Christian, had no immoral habits, and was in excellent health (27-28). These husbands and fathers also had three responsibilities: to provide for their families; to cooperate with the mothers in molding the moral character of the children; and to equip the children, especially the sons, with qualities needed to advance life (31). These kinds of ideals and beliefs were ones that Longfellow was surrounded by, and he may have possibly tried to keep his own family revolved around these morals as well. Since these morals were ingrained into popular culture at the time, it is no wonder that some of them made their way into Longfellow’s poetry. “The Village Blacksmith” is a good example of this. This poem was written between December 1839 and November 1841; it was then published in Ballads and Other Poems in 1842. The blacksmith in this poem is a hardworking, Christian man. He labors all day for his family, and then, “He goes on Sunday to the church, / And sits among his boys; / He hears the parson pray and preach, / He hears his daughter’s voice, / Singing in the village choir, / And it makes his heart rejoice” (16). He embodies this Christian father ideal that was so prevalent during the nineteenth century. Longfellow does not make him a scoundrel or a bad parent; rather, he works hard, is kind hearted, and is even a good Christian. The love for his children is obvious and true. However, there is the absence of his wife: “He needs must think of her once more, / How in the grave she lies; / And with his hard, rough hand he wipes / A tear out of his eyes” (16). Though the blacksmith is a single parent, and a father nonetheless, he still cares affectionately for his wife; again, reinforcing the Christian ideals of the time. However, not all of Longfellow’s poems support these good, fatherly, Christian beliefs.
“The Wreck of Hesperus”, written between December 1839 and November 1841, was also published in Ballads and Other Poems in 1842. Though the poem contains its own religious themes, it does not have a very Christian-like father figure. Instead, the father in this poem is 3 very proud and arrogant, which ultimately leads to his and his daughter’s deaths. The skipper believes himself to be mighty and powerful and that he can handle anything that nature forces on him: “For I can weather the roughest gale / That the wind did blow” (13), he tells his young daughter. This boastfulness and self-assurance against nature can be seen as defiance against God, therefore, making the skipper an un-Christian like father. The most Christian character and aspect of the poem is seen through the skipper’s daughter. As she is bound to the mast she “…clasped her hands and prayed / That save’d she might be; / And she thought of Christ, who stilled the wave, / On the Lake of Galilee” (14). Longfellow brings in his own Christian sentiments at the end of the poem, writing, “Christ save us all from a death like this, / On the reef of Norman’s Woe!” (15). Longfellow’s own beliefs, and the beliefs and morals of the nineteenth century, can be seen in the father figures of these two poems. However, there are more facets to these fathers than just Christianity.
One aspect that these three poems all share in common is the emphasis on the father-daughter relationship. In “The Village Blacksmith,” the blacksmith hears and sees his daughter singing in the church choir and it makes his heart rejoice, and also brings to mind her mother’s voice that has long passed. Though this relationship is not explored thoroughly, the love is still present and discernible; especially since the blacksmith’s sons are only briefly mentioned. This is very interesting, especially compared to the nineteenth centuries views on sons versus daughters. Fathers were typically urged to take a particular interest in boys’ development and to encourage their sons’ studies, rather than their daughters’ (Frank 33). In fact, there seemed to be a primary tension in father-daughter relationships during that time (Johansen 129). Father’s instruction to their daughters generally fell within the approved boundaries of female gender roles (Johansen 129). Furthermore, fathers demonstrated their affection in the context of their role as an advisor on both moral and pragmatic matters (129). This is what sets Longfellow’s poems apart from the typical mindset of the nineteenth century. The blacksmith reflects on his daughters singing voice and the voice of his late wife so much so that it brings him to the point of tears; a seemingly uncommon reaction of the time, especially in public.
In “The Wreck of Hesperus,” the skipper brings his daughter, not a son, aboard the schooner, and though he is nurturing toward her, he does not see her as only a means in the domestic sphere, but rather, as a worthy presence on the ship. Longfellow twists the norms of the time in his poetry to reflect a different kind of father figure; one that had equal respect for both his sons, and his daughters. This relationship is also seen heavily in “The Children’s Hour.” It was written from 1859-1860 and was originally published in the September 1860 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. It was then published in Tales of a Wayside Inn in 1863. The poem revolves around the time in the day when his three youngest children: “Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra, / And Edith with golden hair” (347), all come down to attack and play with him while he is in his study. The poem is fun and lively, and shows the loving and playful relationship between Longfellow and his daughters. The father-daughters relationship seen in the poem is very strong, and Longfellow does not hesitate to show his emotions and affections for his children: “I have you fast in my fortress, / And will not let you depart, / But put you down in the dungeon / In the round-tower of my heart. / And there I will keep you forever, / Yes, forever and a day” (348). Longfellow has a strong and loving relationship with his daughters, and allows them to attack him and “devour me in kisses” (Longfellow 347). This hour out of each day is devoted to spending time with his daughters, and it becomes a nightly ritual for both him and them. Longfellow takes the time out of his day to spend a playful time with his daughters, thus strengthening their relationship even more. The tone of the poem does not indicate that Longfellow is annoyed by this time at all, rather, he is 5 overcome with joy from it: “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” and “A whisper, and then a silence: / Yet I know by their merry eyes / They are plotting and planning together / To take me by surprise” (347). This positive look on fatherhood and the importance of father-daughter bonding and the strengthening of that relationship was one that was still being developed over the course of the nineteenth century. Although men had less time for fatherhood than in the past, they were still encouraged by moral opinion makers to cultivate more substantial emotional ties with their children than had earlier generations of fathers (Frank 115). Longfellow seems to have understood this philosophy and practiced it in his own home, and displayed it throughout his works.
In both “The Village Blacksmith” and “The Wreck of Hesperus,” there is an unusual theme that is present: single fatherhood. In “The Village Blacksmith,” the blacksmith is raising his sons and daughter by himself. Longfellow indicates that the mother has passed on: “How in the grave she lies” (16). In “The Wreck of Hesperus,” no mother is mentioned, but it can be assumed that the mother has passed, or was just never a part of the daughters life (the mother could however be very much alive. It cannot be determined from the text). This emphasis on single parenthood, especially from the father’s side, is quite unusual in nineteenth century standards. The most common cause for single fatherhood was the death of the mother through childbirth. During the nineteenth century, one out of every thirty women might still have been expected to die in childbirth (Frank 97). For many men, the possible loss of a spouse cast a heavy shadow over the prospect of paternity (97). What’s more, the task of mothering the family could fall on the shoulders of a girl as young as thirteen years old, and might last for a lengthy period of years (164). It can be assumed that the daughter in “The Village Blacksmith” could be 6 parenting her brothers in the absence of her mother, especially since her father labors hard every day. It can also be assumed that perhaps the daughter in the “Wreck of Hesperus” is also parenting. Perhaps she has other siblings, or she has taken care of her father for some years. Again, none of this can be exactly determined from the text. Even Longfellow becomes a single father after the tragic death of his wife Fanny. However, “The Village Blacksmith” and “The Wreck of Hesperus” were written before he married Fanny, and “The Children’s Hour” was written a year before Fanny’s death.
The last notable aspect of fatherhood that can be seen is the concept of playtime. This is mainly seen in “The Children’s Hour.” During the nineteenth century, parents began to purchase books, toys, and games for their children (Griswold 11). As children began to develop their play skills and incorporate play into their lives, father’s found their children’s antics a constant source of amusement, took pride in their accomplishments, and noted their eccentricities (11). This is can be seen strongly in Longfellow’s reactions to his daughters coming down the stairs, hearing the patter of their feet, and taking delight in their attack on him. This interactive play benefited both father and child. While the father developed more emotional ties and relationships with his children, the children’s perceptions of their father were softened through play (Frank 132-33). This enabled the children to see a new and playful side to their fathers, rather than just an aggressive patriarch, which was typically seen in years before. However, it is important to note that paternal playfulness was more pronounced in urban-middle-class households, than in agrarian households. The setting of “The Children’s Hour” is Longfellow’s home, in his study no less; Longfellow and his family were not farmers by any means, so this difference is important to realize. Nonetheless, the playfulness that is experienced and displayed in this poem greatly reflects the trend that was occurring in the nineteenth century. The paternal relationship with his 7 children was growing stronger every day, and Longfellow made it even more clear and known by writing down his personal experiences.
Longfellow’s attention to the aspects of fatherhood, and the roles that the father plays in society and in the home, are very important. Longfellow was not afraid to branch out and show the development of the paternal figure during this time; even including flawed fathers and fathers who were managing households. In the nineteenth century, writers gave little attention to fathers or fatherhood, and there was a relative decline in the significance of fatherhood as well (Griswold 13). However, Longfellow was able to break out of these barriers and provide poetry to speak to fathers and the paternal image that was being disregarded.
Frank, Stephen M. Life with Father: Parenthood and Masculinity in the Nineteenth-Century American North. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998. Print.
Griswold, Robert L. Fatherhood in America. New York: BasicBooks, 1993. Print. Johansen, Shawn. Family Men. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Poems and Other Writings. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. New York: The Library of America, 2000. Print.