On a cold, dark and dreary day in 1841, a lovelorn poet sat at a desk in his parents’ summer dining room, looked out into the garden, and brooded over the loss of those he had loved over the years. After years of studying German and discussing literature with his reluctant friend, Fanny Appleton, he had professed his fondness for her, and she had turned down his marriage proposal. He was not happy about it.
“Into each life some rain must fall,” he wrote. “Some days must be dark and dreary.”
He titled his verse “The Rainy Day.” It became one of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s most well-known poems.
The flowering grapevine still clings to the mouldering wall of 489 Congress Street in Portland, Maine, just as it famously did in “The Rainy Day.” Here’s the little traveler posing by it in the summer of 1973.
Approaching Maine’s metropolis, I had a debate with myself. Go along on a lucky lobster catch on Casco Bay or scamper uptown and see the Longfellow vine and its habitat again? Guess what side won?
Thanks to its fine geographic position on a peninsula, and a thriving port and harbor, Portland was the capital of Maine between 1820 and 1832. Its symbol, the phoenix, recalls how Portland has restored itself to prosperity after four major fires.
In 1785, Revolutionary War General Peleg Wadsworth — a descendant from seven Mayflower Pilgrims, including the Brewsters, the Mullinses and John Alden — built the first brick house in Portland, so far out of town that his neighbors questioned the soundness of his decision. He, his wife and their six children moved into the home; four more were born there. From the front windows, the Wadsworths could admire Portland’s harbor, its neighboring islands, and Cape Elizabeth; from the rear, they had magnificent views of Back Cove, fields, forests and the White Mountains.
When Gen. Wadsworth retired to the country in 1807, his daughter Zilpah and her husband, Stephen Longfellow IV, moved there with their children, including their eight-month-old son Henry. The Longfellows were married in 1804 in the home’s parlor, which was not only the largest in Portland when the house was built, but also contained the first piano in town. In 1815, they added a third story to the home they called the “Old Original.”
The poet lived here during his childhood and boyhood, after graduating from Bowdoin College in 1821, and while studying law in his father’s home office, until he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1843, when Fanny finally married him. While living in the home, 13-year-old Longfellow wrote his first poem, “The Battle of Lovell’s Pond” (1820), a story that his grandfather told him. It was published in the Portland Gazette and was signed “Henry.” Other poems Longfellow wrote in the home are “Musings” (1825), “The Spirit of Poetry” (1825), “Burial of Minnisink” (1825), “Song: When from the eye of day” (1826), “Song of the Birds” (1826), “Changed” (1858), and a portion of “Hyperion” (1839), a romance whose heroine was said to have been inspired by Fanny Appleton.
Rhymed stanzas, regular meter and appealing subjects made Longfellow’s poetry easy to memorize and recite, especially among families gathered around the fire. That led him to be known as one of the “Fireside Poets,” along with contemporaries like William Cullen Bryant, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Greenleaf Whittier. On an 1855 return to his family home, Longfellow wrote about Portland in “My Lost Youth”: “Often I think of the beautiful town/That is seated by the sea; Often in thought go up and down/The pleasant streets of that dear old town, And my youth comes back to me….”
Longfellow’s last visit to the home was in July 1881. His younger sister, Anne Longfellow Pierce, lived in the home for more than 87 years, also marrying her husband in the home’s parlor in 1832. When she died in 1901, she left the house and all its contents to the Maine Historical Society, with the conditions that it be restored to its 1850s appearance, the original furnishings kept in the lower front rooms, and preserved as a memorial to the Longfellow family. Today, the oldest existing structure on the Portland peninsula is an historic house museum.
My guide, Millie, met me in the front hall, outfitted with a painted floorcloth and French Rococo Revival wallpaper that would have been costly, but very fashionable, at the time.
The house includes many Wadsworth and Longfellow family possessions. Those associated with the poet include the physician’s bill from his birth; his baby cap, shirt and cradle; schoolbooks; Bowdoin College term and board bills; trunk; and bills associated with his first visit to Europe from 1826 to 1829. In the parlor, you can see the tea table where Longfellow wrote, a portrait of George Washington over the mantle, where it always hung, and a portrait of Evangeline, the heroine of Longfellow’s poem by the same name, that was made after its publication.
Longfellow’s third-floor bedroom — and a window casing on which one of the Longfellow children inscribed, “How dear is the home of my childhood” — is closed to the public, but on the wall next to the staircase, you can see little handprints and a neat signature belonging to his aunt, Eliza Wadsworth, when she was a little girl.
The plot where the Wadsworths and Longfellows grew vegetables and had an orchard of plum, apple and pear trees is now a Colonial Revival-style garden. The Longfellow Garden Club created it in the 1920s and replanted in 2007 with many plants native to Maine or mentioned in Longfellow’s poems. Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet’s nephew, designed its Children’s Gate to honor his uncle’s fondness for children. It was installed in 1907, was removed in the 1960s, and was recreated in 2012. Millie thoughtfully offered to take my photo next to the vine that clings to the mouldering wall once more.
Then, I scurried off to my next destination on Congress Street: the source of my parents’ 50th birthday gift to me. It’s a pendant in the shape of a lighthouse, with a sky-blue top and a medium-blue sea, living green and rich brown earth tones below. It’s made of Maine sea glass, collected, cut, polished and assembled by a Maine family, and sold by Cross Jewelers. In its second-floor showroom, salesman David showed me other examples of the watermelon tourmaline pendant my parents gave me on another occasion. In October 1972, two metric tons, or three and one-half million carats, of tourmalines were found on Plumbago Mountain, just west of Portland. This find was so plentiful that jewelers are still cutting gems from it.
For more on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his Portland home, read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Portland: The Fireside Poet of Maine, by John William Babin and Allan M. Levinsky, and The Wadsworth-Longfellow House: Longfellow’s Old Home, Portland, Maine: Its History and Its Occupants, by Nathan Goold, published by the Maine Historical Society. Forever and Forever: The Courtship of Henry Longfellow and Fanny Appleton, by Josi S. Kilpack, and Christmas Bells, by Jennifer Chiaverini, are heartwarming historical novels inspired by the romance of Longfellow and Fanny Applegate.