Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife of 17 years, Frances died tragically while using a wax taper to seal a letter, sets fire to her dress. She screams and bats at the flames, and Longfellow, napping in the next room, rushes in and tries to put out the fire. But her light summer dress, appropriate for the July heat, makes it difficult to extinguish the flames. They put out the fire, but she’s badly burned. A long night follows. She is given ether, but the next day, she dies, in terrible pain.
Longfellow is beside himself with grief. He was badly burned as well, and has to stay in bed while the mother of his six children is buried. Thereafter, he shuts himself up in his room and paces the floor. He is heard moaning, “Oh, my beautiful wife, my beautiful wife!”
For the rest of his 21 years, the scars remained. The ones on his face he disguised with the long beard that becomes his trademark.
He never remarried, and he rarely talked about his wife. One time, while discussing the Friedrich Schiller poem, “The Ring of Polycrates” — about a ruler whose good fortune is cursed by the gods to lead to tragedy — Longfellow remarked, ‘It was just so with me. I was too happy. I might fancy the gods envied, if I could fancy heathen gods.'”
Eighteen years later, 2 years before he died, he was looking at a book with pictures of the far west and the mountains when he came across a picture much like the one reproduced here, which inspired him to write about his beloved frances. The poem that resulted is “The Cross of Snow,” one of his most poignant and touching sonnets. Longfellow chose to keep his poem, like his grief, private. The poem was found among his papers after his death in 1882.
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.