Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the Speechlessness of Grief

In 1861, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's wife, Frances, caught fire due to either melted wax or a candle. When Longfellow attempted to smother the flames, he sustained severe burns to his body and face. The scars to his face caused Longfellow to grow out his famous white beard immortalized by Julia Margaret Cameron in her 1868 portrait of him.

Frances died as a result of her injuries. Over the next two decades, Longfellow ceased to write much at all. He focused his attention on a critically-acclaimed translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, which was published in 1867.

It wasn't until eighteen years after Frances's death that he wrote a poem memorializing his wife. "The Cross of Snow" was posthumously published after Longfellow died in 1882. The poem captures his grief, how it became a cross that he bore, a burden that never truly left him.

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.

Longfellow's story is an example of the way that devastating loss can steal our ability to speak or write. Even great poets and writers are not immune to the silencing power of grief. It's as though our vocal cords are cut. We try to speak, but nothing comes or the right words evade our vocabulary. What's interesting is that Longfellow had buried an infant daughter in 1848 and also wrote a poem about that loss--it was called "Resignation"--but it was the loss of his wife Frances in 1861 that debilitated him, that challenged his ability to write. Perhaps because he was older, had felt the way that loss accumulates like strata, building layer upon layer that weighs us down.

It's not all that surprising that he plunged into another language after the death of Frances. He needed to escape his own language, break away from it, wade into different sounds and verbs and meanings, find solace in another tongue. He came back to English with "The Cross of Snow." He wrote it two years before his own death, did not seek out publication for it. Perhaps it was just what he needed to say. By that time, he was famous, but his best work was behind him. What do we make of grief when it has the power to silence even our greatest writers? It took him almost two decades, but Longfellow created one last stunning gasp of a poem that captures his grief and our own.