The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) authored many of the most popular poems in nineteenth century American literature. Descendant of an old New England family, Longfellow traveled extensively throughout Europe before he became professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College from 1829 to 1835. After the death of his first wife in 1835, Longfellow returned to Europe, where he met Frances Appleton, who became his second wife and served as the model for the heroine of his prose romance Hyperion published in 1839. From 1836 to 1854, Longfellow served as professor of modern languages at Harvard. He achieved great fame, especially for his long narrative poems including Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855), The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), and Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863). The latter volume included one of his best-known poems “Paul Revere’s Ride” featuring some of the most famous verses in nineteenth century American literature:
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
Another of Longfellow’s masterpieces was his poetic translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy published in 1867. After his death, he became the first American writer honored with a bust placed in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey in London.
His poem “Scanderbeg,” commemorating the great Albanian national hero George Castriota Scanderbeg who fought to defend Christendom from the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century, is contained in part 3 of Longfellow’s Tales of a Wayside Inn, as the Spanish Jew’s Second Tale.
Longfellow undertook this large-scale literary project in part as a way to deal with the grief over the loss of his second wife who died in 1861. Originally titled The Sudbury Tales, Longfellow worried it would sound too similar to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. At the suggestion of his friend, Massachusetts Republican senator Charles Sumner, he changed the title of the book to Tales of a Wayside Inn.
In the manner of Geoffrey Chaucer’ Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, the poems included in the collection are told by a group of people set in the tavern of the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, located only twenty miles from the poet’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The inn had been a favorite location for revelers from Harvard College where Longfellow had taught, before it closed when its owner, Lyman Howe, died in 1861. To research the setting for his book of poems, Longfellow visited the Wayside Inn in 1862, together with his friend and publisher James Thomas Fields. The poet referred to it as “a rambling, tumble-down building.” Longfellow saw it as the perfect setting for his collection of epic poems. The Wayside Inn did not reopen for business until 1897. The American industrialist Henry Ford then purchased the inn in 1923, restored it, and donated it to a charitable foundation. It still operates as an inn and an historic site today: www.waysideinn.org
Most of the stories were derived by Longfellow from his wide reading and extensive travels — many of them have their origins in legends from continental Europe, and others from American sources. Among these was the legend of the great Albanian national hero George Castriota Scanderbeg who successfully defended his country against invasion by the Ottoman Turks for a quarter of a century from 1443 to 1468. Longfellow’s poem recounts the great deeds of the Albanian leader who staved off the Islamic assault on his country.
Tales of a Wayside Inn was first published on November 23, 1863, with an initial print run of 15,000 copies. Longfellow’s poem “Scanderbeg” would become the most famous literary tribute to the deeds of the great Albanian hero in English literature. His poem was first translated into Albanian by the great Albanian-American scholar Bishop Fan Noli in 1916.
In 2018, as we commemorate the 550th anniversary of the death of the great Albanian national hero, it is a perfect time to revisit Longfellow’s epic literary masterpiece hailing epic deeds of Scanderbeg. For more on the life and times of the Albanian national hero see Scanderbeg: A History of George Castriota and the Albanian Resistance to Islamic Expansion in Fifteenth Century Europe by Dr. A.K. Brackob available on Amazon and at HistriaBooks.com.
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