18 pages 36 minutes read

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1878

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Summary and Study Guide


“Nature” reflects the evolution of Henry Longfellow, a retiring Harvard professor of modern languages, into the role of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a revered poet who, after nearly a half century producing lyric verse, became a fixture in American culture. As the most recognized voice in a loose confederacy of poets, based about the environs of Boston and known collectively as the Fireside poets, Longfellow viewed poetry as an instrument of moral instruction. Published in 1878, just four years before Longfellow’s death, “Nature” comforts the reader about the inevitability of death.

Poet Biography

Born in 1807 along the fringes of western Massachusetts, now coastal southern Maine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow enjoyed a comfortable, even spacious upbringing. His father was a prominent lawyer and later a member of Congress. Early on, Longfellow, a precocious student and voracious reader (his family’s home had one of the largest private libraries in New England), responded to the intricacies of language. Although his father expected him to study law, Longfellow majored in language studies at the nearby newly-opened Bowdoin College. The sheer aural delight in the sonic play of words engaged him—he had already published original verse before he arrived at Bowdoin. Traveling in Europe after graduation, he delighted in the challenge of communicating in multiple languages.

After a tragically brief marriage (his first wife, Mary Storer Potter, died after a miscarriage), Longfellow, grief-stricken, returned to New England and, in 1836, accepted a teaching post in languages at Harvard. He would remarry Frances “Fanny” Appleton and eventually parent six children.

Longfellow, at the time known more for his travel essays, published his first volume of poetry in 1839. The book found an immediate audience, as did Longfellow’s follow-up volume, published just two years later. Over the next 10 years, Longfellow emerged as one of the most widely recognized and successful figures in American writing. After the success of the 1847 publication of Evangeline—an epic poem about tragic love set against the brutal British displacement of French settlers from Nova Scotia during the French-Indian War—Longfellow retired from teaching in 1854 to focus solely on his poetry. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Longfellow was remarkably prolific. He became the preeminent voice of the new nation even as that nation was coming apart. His works, most notably “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and “The Village Blacksmith,” upcycled inherited British poetic forms by treating American subjects: the new nation’s limitless natural beauty, its heroic colonial history, and its stately native cultures. Other poems, such as “The Psalm of Life,” “The Light of Stars,” and “The Footsteps of Angels,” drew on the British Neo-Classical concept of poetry offering wisdom in stately lines. Longfellow’s poems, with their carefully measured rhythms and stately rhymes, lent themselves to public recitation and were frequently quoted in church socials, community picnics, and gatherings to celebrate national holidays.

Shortly after the nation Longfellow so loved came apart, his wife Fanny died after an accident at home: Her dress caught fire, and she died the next day from severe burns. Longfellow himself was burned badly trying to save her, the reason he would grow his signature, flowing beard. For more than two years, the combination of his profound grief over the senseless accident and the grim news of the blood-cost of the war, Longfellow wrote nothing. Then in his 60s, Longfellow moved to London where over the next 20 years he would return to poetry, publishing seven volumes of verse, often extended meditations on the dynamics of time, mortality, and the soul itself, among them “Nature.” By any measure—productivity, longevity, sales, influence, respect—Longfellow was internationally the most recognized figure in American letters. His stature as America’s unofficial National Bard was confirmed when, by an act of Congress, his 75th birthday was declared a national holiday. He died the following spring, March 1882. Although buried on the grounds of his beloved estate north of Boston, Longfellow was commemorated by a bust of his likeness unveiled two years later in Poets’ Corner of London’s Westminster Abbey, confirming his status as an international man of letters.

Poem Text

As a fond mother, when the day is o'er,     

   Leads by the hand her little child to bed,   

   Half willing, half reluctant to be led,    

   And leave his broken playthings on the floor, 

Still gazing at them through the open door,    

   Nor wholly reassured and comforted   

   By promises of others in their stead,   

   Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;

So Nature deals with us, and takes away 

   Our playthings one by one, and by the hand 

   Leads us to rest so gently, that we go   

Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,  

   Being too full of sleep to understand     

   How far the unknown transcends the what we know.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “Nature.” 1878. Academy of American Poets.


Longfellow uses a familiar domestic scene—a mother lovingly but firmly leading her child off to bed; the child is tired but reluctant to abandon play for the day—to suggest humanity’s struggle against the inevitability of death.

The child’s “broken playthings” (Line 4) are scattered all over the floor, suggesting the child’s day-long devotion to play, which has tired him. Yet, even when his mother comes to take him by the hand to lead him off for a well-earned night’s rest, the child is only “[h]alf willing” (Line 3) to surrender the day. As he takes his mother’s hand, the child lingers, staring longingly at the toys in the room he has left.

In an incentive to ease the child off to sleep, the mother reassures the child that new toys, even “more splendid” (Line 8), will replace the broken toys. Although half-asleep and wanting to trust his mother, something in the child resists his mother’s promise. He is not “wholly reassured and comforted” (Line 6). He wonders if these new toys his mother promises will not be as good as those broken toys he is leaving behind.

Beginning in Line 9, the poet sets aside the mother and child narrative to unpack the poem’s symbols: Nature is like that gentle and loving but firm mother. The boy’s beloved playthings are all the gathered things—the people, the objects, the memories—that have sustained, animated, and lifted every person’s every day. Nature understands, like the mother, when it is time to “rest so gently” (Line 11). Like the child struggling to accept the promise of better toys tomorrow and thus reluctant to abandon the toys that have given his days their purpose, a person edging toward the promise of the afterlife is reluctant to leave behind the world he knows. In the closing line, the poet reassures the reader that what is beyond the understanding of humanity is that what the transcendent afterlife promises, that ever-coaxing “unknown” (Line 14), far exceeds the worth, grace, and value of the known and familiar world.