The Arsenal at Springfield – Longfellow Commentary

The Arsenal at Springfield
By: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This is the Arsenal. From floor to ceiling,
Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms;
But from their silent pipes no anthem pealing
Startles the villages with strange alarms.

Ah! what a sound will rise, how wild and dreary,
When the death-angel touches those swift keys!
What loud lament and dismal Miserere
Will mingle with their awful symphonies!

I hear even now the infinite fierce chorus,
The cries of agony, the endless groan,
Which, through the ages that have gone before us,
In long reverberations reach our own.

On helm and harness rings the Saxon hammer,
Through Cimbric forest roars the Norseman’s song,
And loud, amid the universal clamor,
O’er distant deserts sounds the Tartar gong.

I hear the Florentine, who from his palace
Wheels out his battle-bell with dreadful din,
And Aztec priests upon their teocallis
Beat the wild war-drums made of serpent’s skin;

The tumult of each sacked and burning village;
The shout that every prayer for mercy drowns;
The soldiers’ revels in the midst of pillage;
The wail of famine in beleaguered towns;

The bursting shell, the gateway wrenched asunder,
The rattling musketry, the clashing blade;
And ever and anon, in tones of thunder
The diapason of the cannonade.

Is it, O man, with such discordant noises,
With such accursed instruments as these,
Thou drownest Nature’s sweet and kindly voices,
And jarrest the celestial harmonies?

Were half the power, that fills the world with terror,
Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts,
Given to redeem the human mind from error,
There were no need of arsenals or forts:

The warrior’s name would be a name abhorred!
And every nation, that should lift again
Its hand against a brother, on its forehead
Would wear forevermore the curse of Cain!

Down the dark future, through long generations,
The echoing sounds grow fainter and then cease;
And like a bell, with solemn, sweet vibrations,
I hear once more the voice of Christ say, “Peace!”

Peace! and no longer from its brazen portals
The blast of War’s great organ shakes the skies!
But beautiful as songs of the immortals,
The holy melodies of love arise.

Written in 1845, Henry Longfellow’s The Arsenal of Springfield was originally published in Graham’s Magazine. It was at the end of the year that the poem was reprinted in The Belfry of Burges and Other Poems. Interestingly, it wasn’t solely Longfellow who wrote the poem. His wife Fanny was considered partially responsible for the creation of the poem. Writer Cecil Williams explains that during a wedding journey the pair visited Springfield, Massachusetts and during that time Fanny had encouraged her husband to write a poem. Longfellow’s inspiration for the poem came from his wife but also from Charles Sumner who had also joined them on their trip. His inspiration had come from reading Sumner’s address on The True Grandeur of Nations.

The simile “Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms” brings forth remembrance and the poem recounts the somber and damaging times of war. Longfellow uses rhyme in every stanza to emphasize the destruction and chaos a war can bring. “The shout that every prayer for mercy drowns / The wail of famine in beleaguered towns” is an example of the rhyme and imagery. While he mentions the events of war, Longfellow references aspects of Aztec and Norse war. It’s almost as if he is showing the reader the past so they are not doomed to repeat it. The last few stanzas of the poem shift to an alternative to war and describes what a world would be without it. “There were no need of arsenals or forts:” The first person feels like he is retelling memories directly to the reader. The use of “I” reinforces that the speaker was there and has seen and experienced the destruction and has hope for a better future.

While the poem was received positively, in 1852 Jacob Abbott commented  in Harper’s Magazine that it seems almost impossible to relate muskets which bring carnage to an organ that is meant to play beautiful music. He writes, ought, perhaps, to be considered rather as instruments of security and peace… They protect by their existence, and not by their action….”

The poem really stood out as a call to peace. It takes a poem about the tragedy of war and then flips it into a call for hope. It leaves a lasting message of how beautiful the world could be. The way in which the poem seems to flip realities on the reader is what makes it so powerful. It’s meant to make the reader consider the past and how learning from it could potentially change the world for the better.

Asia Hill

Bibliography and Further Reading: Tensions Concerning Armory Production Just Prior to the Civil War.Forge of Innovation, University of Massachusetts. “The Arsenal at Springfield’ by Longfellow.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 26 Feb. 2015.

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