July 10, 2011

Mrs. Longfellow: so perfect a companion

After suffering through the night, Frances "Fanny" Appleton Longfellow died on July 10, 1861 after asking for a cup of coffee. She was 43 years old. The cause of death seemed to be shock after accidentally catching fire the day before. Her husband, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, had tried to save her life when he awoke from a nap. He covered her with a rug, which proved too small, and resorted to patting out the flames with his own body. His hands were severely injured in the process and, as he recovered, he missed her funeral (which was held on their 18th wedding anniversary). A friend wrote of Longfellow's absence:

I have not seen Longfellow. He has seen no one yet, out of his immediate family. I dread to think of him bereaved of Fanny: she was so perfect a companion of his daily existence, and sharer of his glory... God help them all. The world henceforth will be strangely changed for him.

The poet remained very private in his sorrows, though he was deeply grieved by his wife's sudden death. He became more sullen and rarely left his home in the following months. He stopped shaving, either out of disinterest or due to burn marks on his face. Biographers have found it frustrating that Longfellow did not allow his deep depression to mark what a contemporary called his "goody two-shoes" style of poetry. Nevertheless, 18 years to the day after his wife's death, Longfellow composed a sonnet he never intended to have published. "The Cross of Snow" is dated July 10, 1879:

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died, and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
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.


  1. Great post. And great blog. Keep it up. I've never come across this poem before, although I've heard the story of Longfellow's tragedy.

  2. An interesting post on the Reader's Almanac blog by Longfellow biographer Christoph Irmscher also discussed her death: http://blog.loa.org/2011/07/christoph-irmscher-on-henry-wadsworth.html


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