Born in Portland, Maine, he graduated at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where one of his classmates was Nathaniel Hawthorne. He spent three years in Europe (1826-29) before becoming Professor of Foreign Languages at Bowdoin (1829-35). After another visit to Europe, when he met Thomas Carlyle, he became Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Harvard (1836-54).
He visited Europe again in 1842 and 1868. Voices of the Night (1839), his first book of verse, made a favourable impression, as did Ballads (1841), which included 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' and 'The Village Blacksmith'. His most popular works are Evangeline (1847), a tale (in hexameters) of the French exiles of Acadia, and The Song of Hiawatha (1855), which is based on the legends of Native Americans, using a metre borrowed from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. His gift of simple, romantic story-telling in verse brought him enduring popularity as a poet.