Fireside Poets

Today, finding entertainment at home is easy. People turn to their entertainment consoles where endless games, television shows, and movies are readily available. Computers offer information at the touch of a button. Cell phones place friends in the palm of a hand, even when separated by thousands of miles. But finding after-dinner entertainment hasn't always been so easy. 

Fireside Poets Fireside Poets

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    There was a time when television, radio, and internet connectivity were just a dream. People used to sit by the hearth at home, telling stories and reading together. At the start of the 19th century, reading and reciting poetry became a popular pass time in homes across the country. Many of these poems were written by a group of five poets called the Fireside Poets.

    Fireside Poets Definition

    The Fireside Poets consists of a group of five poets who gained popularity during the Romantic Period. The poets commonly referred to as Fireside Poets are:

    • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 - 1882)

    • Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809 - 1894)

    • William Cullen Bryant (1794 - 1878)

    • John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892)

    • James Russell Lowell (1819 - 1891)

    This group of individuals was the first group of American writers to gain the type of notoriety and celebrity that rivaled the English poets and writers in either country. They were well-respected because of their academic successes, scholarship, and enchanting rhymes. They preferred writing in conventional or traditional forms, which lent their work to easy memorization.

    That, coupled with subject matter that was often grounded in myth, history, and patriotism also contributed to their other name, “The Schoolroom Poets,” as many school-age children were required to study and memorize their works. Their often intensely didactic work typically used American legends and scenes from familiar American life, which helped audiences both young and old relate to the poetry.

    Didactic means something with a purpose to instruct a moral lesson or expectation of behavior.

    Fireside Poets and Romanticism

    The Fireside Poets expressed an emphasis on the importance of the individual's emotion and imagination, and revealed an interest in nature. These traits, part of the ideals of the Romantic movement, helped to shape the American identity. Because the Fireside Poets were equally welcomed in both the academic and home setting, their writing was highly influential during a time when America, a new nation, was yearning for understanding, belonging, and a sense of self. By emphasizing the importance of individual emotions, a common link to nature, and ideas of nationalism, the Fireside Poets helped define the American national identity.

    Romanticism was a literary, musical, artistic, and philosophical movement in the late 18th to 19th centuries that focused on nature, individual emotions, imagination, and creative expression. America was seeking to assert independence from British rule and create a national identity. Romantic poets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Cullen Bryant sought to define the American identity, grounded in nature and daily domestic American life. They aimed to create a field of literature and birth a national identity that was unique to America and independent from England while emphasizing a common humanity.

    Fireside Poets Characteristics

    The Fireside Poets wrote in ways that helped to join the reading community and spoke to both intellectuals and the everyday public. Their writing and work served as a link between the past and present, garnering them acclaim and respect from their contemporaries and admiration from future poets. Their style was respected enough to be studied in schools, welcomed by the literary community, and equally embraced in the home. Some defining characteristics of poetry written by the Fireside Poets include:

    • Use of standard and traditional poetic forms

    • Relatable themes

    • Easy to read

    • Standard rhyme schemes

    • Consistent use of metrical patterns

    • Long narrative poems

    • Themes of nature, myth, social issues, daily domestic life, and love

    The Fireside Poets became household names and were also called household poets. Their work was welcomed into American homes in ways that poets before them had not experienced. What about them made their writing so relatable?

    Importance of the Fireside Poets

    The Fireside Poets were readily recognized during their time and highly celebrated for their contributions to literature. Here are some important facts to know about each.

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of the more well-known and widely read American poets of the 19th century. His notable works include “Song of Hiawatha” (1855) and “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1861). These widely anthologized poems are a favorite for elementary-aged children. They memorialize important events and figures in American history and have rhythmic meter and rhyme.

    Longfellow was an academic, and his translation of Dante Alighieri's Inferno from Italian to English is still read today. Longfellow is the first of only two American poets to have been celebrated and honored with a bust in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. The other poet honored in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner is T.S. Eliot.

    Fireside Poets, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow Bust, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow always donned a beard.

    William Cullen Bryant

    William Cullen Bryant is best known for his poem “Thanatopsis” (1817), which he wrote as a teenager. He was a lawyer by trade and editor of the New York Evening Post. His writing was infused with respect and revere for nature. Bryant also let a very political life, was an avid supporter of President Lincoln, and a founding member of the Republican Party.

    James Russell Lowell

    James Russell Lowell was born to a prominent family and led his life as an active abolitionist, fighting for the rights of slaves in an effort to end the institution of slavery. His poem “A Fable of Critics” (1848) was a satire drawing a critical eye at some of the early American writers and their works. In it, the Roman god of poetry, Apollo, asks a critic about some prominent American poets and their contributions to the canon of American literature. The critic reviews prominent literary figures, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Cullen Bryant, and Lowell. One of many in a family of poets, he is the ancestor of poets Amy Lowell (1874-1925) and Robert Lowell (1917-1977).

    Oliver Wendell Holmes

    Oliver Wendell Holmes was a poet but also a prominent figure in the medical community. Holmes was an American physician who founded the American Medical Association and invented the term “anesthesia.” He was a proponent of gender equality and helped facilitate the admittance of women into medical school at Harvard University. Known for writing between seeing patients, he penned many memorable short poems such as “The Chambered Nautilus” (1859), first published in The Atlantic Monthly, which Holmes founded along with the likes of Francis H. Underwood, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Oliver Wendell Holmes is the father of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

    John Greenleaf Whittier

    Like other poets of his time, John Greenleaf Whittier could not make a livable income on writing alone. He was a cobbler and teacher by trade. Whittier is best known for his poem “Snow-Bound” (1866). It is a memorable poem capturing a day in his boyhood as a Massachusetts Quaker when his family gathered around the hearth at home during a snowstorm. Like Lowell, Whittier was active in the anti-slavery movement. He facilitated the underground railroad and came to be known as “the slave’s poet.”

    Original Fireside Themes

    The Fireside Poets wrote on themes dealing with life, death, nature, and American life. Their easy-to-read language and easily remembered rhymes helped them highlight important social and political issues of their time. Although not exclusive to these writers alone, the following themes are commonly found in poems written by the five Fireside Poets.

    Social issues

    The Fireside Poets surfaced important social issues and took on causes within their poetry. For example, their interest in the abolition of slavery and equality brought the issue to the forefront of society and into the homes of the public. This paved the way for future writers to use poetry as a vehicle for social awareness and change.

    Nature, Life, and Death

    Like other Romantics, the Fireside Poets used nature as an inspiration in their writing. Their writing included vivid visual imagery, often glorified nature, and dealt with death. “The Last Leaf” (1886) by Oliver Wendell Holmes explores the unavoidable strains time puts on life and the body. It is about an old man who is the last of his generation. He has outlived his contemporaries and is in solitude. The man was once stout, young, and attractive. However, he now stumbles around with a cane and is a shadow of his former days.

    Fireside Poets, Green Leaves Water Drops, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Nature was a common theme for the Fireside Poets.

    Love

    The Fireside Poets explored love within their poetry. Longfellow’s sonnet “The Cross of Snow” was written 18 years after his wife’s unfortunate death. In it, he explores the life he has had after her death and how he longs for her. He calls her a “gentle face” as he sits “in the room she died” (line 5). Her absence has all but made his life stand still; he notes in the last line of the poem that seasons are “changeless since the day she died” (line 14).

    Longfellow’s first wife, Frances Appleton, died when her dress caught fire. Although he rushed to save her, her injuries were too much for her body to sustain; she died soon after. Longfellow also suffered injuries to his face which resulted in permanent scarring. He grew his long and iconic beard to cover the scars.

    Fireside Poets - Key takeaways

    • The Fireside Poets were a group of five poets from the Romantic era that were often read by the fireside in homes. Their rhyme and meter made their poems enjoyable reads and easy to memorize. They were also referred to as "Schoolhouse Poets."
    • The five Fireside Poets are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell.
    • The Fireside Poets wrote on themes of love, nature, life, death, and social issues.
    • They were the first group of American writers to rival the popularity of their British writer counterparts.
    • The Fireside Poets preferred writing in conventional or traditional forms, which lent their work to easy memorization. They also wrote about daily domestic life, making their poems easily relatable.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Fireside Poets

    How did the Fireside Poets get their name? 

    The poetry produced by the group of Fireside Poets was easy to memorize and recite, making it prime poetry for families to share as they sat around the fire. For entertainment, families would often sit at the side of the fire in the home, and read works by these poets. 

    Who were the Fireside Poets? 

    The Fireside Poets were William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell. 

    In what way were the Fireside Poets romantic? 

    The Fireside Poets expressed an emphasis on the importance of the individual's emotion, and imagination, and revealed an interest in nature. 

    What were the Fireside Poets most famous for? 

    The Fireside Poets are most revered for their long narrative poems featuring American legends, such as Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride," and for their depiction of American daily life in the home and their focus on the politics of their time. 

    How many Fireside Poets were there? 

    There were five Fireside Poets. 

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