Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2051
Stanza One “The Arsenal at Springfield” begins with a clear statement: “This is the Arsenal.” By using such a blatant form of speech, Longfellow immediately establishes his setting. This is important to him, because he wishes to build on the setting: “From floor to ceiling / Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms.” The guns that reside in the arsenal are so numerous that they take up the entire wall space in the building. Furthermore, the “burnished,” or polished, guns resemble an organ, in this case a pipe organ. A pipe organ is a large instrument that uses pressurized air, forced through rows of pipes, to create musical sounds. By saying that the collection of guns is like an organ, Longfellow is being metaphorical. A metaphor is a technique by which the poet gives an object a secondary meaning that does not normally belong to it. Longfellow does not mean that one could play music on the guns as one could on an organ. However, his reference to the organ invokes a powerful image in the reader’s mind. Although he has not stated so explicitly, the reader can infer from the organ reference that the arsenal’s guns are all standing upright, arranged in rows with their barrels sticking up—like the pipes of an organ. This is the power of Longfellow’s metaphor. The image is even more powerful since the metaphor gives the reader a meaning that is contradictory to the objects’ original meaning. Guns are, by their very nature, used to create violence, whereas organs are usually found in peaceful settings, such as churches, and used to create melodies. In the next two lines, Longfellow elaborates on the fact that he is using a contradictory meaning: “But from their silent pipes no anthem pealing / Startles the villages with strange alarms.” Anthems are a positive form of song meant to praise something or somebody, and they often have holy meanings. These guns, however, have “silent pipes” and offer no consolation or assurance. Likewise, for now, they will not inspire any “strange alarms,” which happen when a startled village is attacked. Stanza Two However, the next line says that things are about to change. Says Longfellow, “Ah! what a sound will rise, how wild and dreary,” indicating by the use of the word will that the peace is only momentary. Some “wild and dreary” tragedy is about to happen. At this point, it is possible to infer a time for the setting. Although some might guess from the start that the “Springfield” from the title is Springfield, Massachusetts, a famous town that helped supply guns to the American Revolution through its arsenal, this line confirms it. The guns from the first stanza are “burnished” and “silent,” because they have never been used. The reader is getting a picture of the arsenal as it was in 1777 before the guns had been used. In this second stanza, Longfellow, writing from the 1840s but looking back to 1777 with the benefit of hindsight, can tell readers for a fact that once the “organ” starts to play, things are going to get bad. He refers to a “death-angel,” who will touch the “swift keys” of the organ. Normal organs are sounded through the use of a keyboard. However, for this organ of death, the keys are the triggers for the guns. Referring to these keys as “swift” underscores the fact that people are going to die quickly in the American Revolution. By using musical language such as “keys,” Longfellow is sustaining the metaphor of guns as organs of death. In the next two lines, he magnifies this effect: “What loud lament and dismal Miserere / Will mingle with their awful symphonies! Miserere is French for “Have mercy,” so these two lines are saying that cries for mercy of those who will be shot will be a form of music—which will blend in with the “awful symphonies” that the organ of death creates. Stanza Three In the third stanza, Longfellow builds on this idea, saying that these “cries of agony” and “the endless groan” will form an “infinite fierce chorus.” These guns are not just going to kill a lot of people; they are going to uphold a tradition that has been going on “through the ages that have gone before us.” Furthermore, the horrible music that will come from them will be made even more horrible from the “long reverberations,” or echoes, of violence from times past. Stanza Four At this point, Longfellow goes back to the past to explore this violence in detail. He starts with the Saxons, members of a Germanic race of people who, along with the Anglos and the Jutes, staged a massive invasion of Britain in the fifth century. The Saxons fought with hammers, which Longfellow notes would ring on “helm and harness.” The use of the ringing sound makes the depiction of the battle more intense and provides a fifth-century equivalent to the organ of death in Springfield. Longfellow continues his exploration of ancient battles by discussing the “Norseman’s song,” a roaring battle cry that tears through the “Cimbric” forest. The “Cimbric” people were a Germanic or Celtic people who were thought to have originated in Jutland, the continental portion of modern-day Denmark. The Norsemen, commonly known as Vikings, were another Scandinavian warrior culture, known for their boisterous battle songs. All of these sounds combine to help create the horrible music of battle, which is such a “universal clamor” that it extends over “deserts” to the land of the Tartars. Tartars, also known as Tatars, were a warrior race in the area of modern-day Turkey. Their “gong” is their particular contribution to the battle “music.” Stanza Five Like the previous stanza, this stanza highlights other warrior cultures that have helped to contribute to the war song. The “Florentine,” located in modern- day Florence, Italy, uses a “battle-bell” during conflicts. Likewise, the “Aztec priests,” a particularly notorious warrior culture that was active in Mexico in the sixteenth century, stand “upon their teocallis” and beat their “wild war-drums made of serpent’s skin.” A “teocallis” was a ceremonial space on the flattened and terraced top of a pyramid, which was used for rituals such as the beating of their war drums. In this case, their drums are made of “serpent’s skin,” an even more dangerous image, since snakes can be very deadly. Stanza Six In the sixth stanza, Longfellow stops his listing of warrior cultures and focuses specifically on the war sounds that create the awful music of a death organ. These sounds include the “tumult” created from ravaged villages, the “shout” that covers up every cry for mercy, the “revels” of the victorious soldiers who are in the midst of pillaging, and the “wail” of people who are hungry—a common side effect of war. Stanza Seven To these sounds of human suffering, Longfellow next adds sounds of various weapons from different eras in military technology. These sounds include “the bursting shell,” explosive projectiles that can tear structures apart; the “rattling musketry,” guns like those in the arsenal; “the clashing blade,” or sword; and of course, as he emphasizes in the last two lines, the “tones of thunder” that accompany the firing of a cannon. This “cannonade” is a “diapason,” a musical term that normally means a fixed level of sound. In other words, when people are at war with modern weapons like cannons, the assault is relentless; the “music” reaches a certain pitch and stays there. Stanza Eight In this stanza, Longfellow poses a question:
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?
Here, Longfellow once again identifies all of the previous descriptions as “discordant noises.” Discordant means “inharmonious,” so Longfellow is saying that, while these war sounds are creating a form of “music,” it is not a good one—it is not harmonious with the rest of human life. Longfellow questions the reader, asking if it is possible that, with these “accursed instruments,” the reader—and all of human society—is drowning out the natural harmonies found in the sounds of nature. Longfellow takes it one step further in the last line, where he suggests that this “discordant” noise might be so destructive that it is jarring the “celestial harmonies.” This refers to an ancient philosophy in which people believed that the heavenly bodies, or spheres, were arranged in such a perfect way that they created divine music. By suggesting that human fighting could throw off the celestial song, Longfellow is underscoring the fact that war has colossal consequences. Stanza Nine As if he is providing an answer to his own question from the previous stanza, Longfellow now makes a plea to stop the fighting. He poses a hypothetical situation: if “half the power that fills the world with terror” and “half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts” were reallocated, then humanity would not need “arsenals” or “forts.” In other words, military campaigns and empires require enormous resources, which would be better spent in educating the human mind into a more peaceful condition. Stanza Ten In this hypothetical new society, the tables would be turned. Whereas in the old society warriors like the Vikings and the Aztecs would be revered, in this new, peaceful society, they would be outcasts, and nobody would even want to speak their names, much less support their militant actions. In the last two lines of this stanza, Longfellow takes it even further, increasing from one warrior to an entire “nation.” If a nation should dare exhibit violence toward another nation in this new society, it would “wear for evermore the curse of Cain!” Here, Longfellow calls on one of the classic stories of the Old Testament to support his case. The story of Cain and Abel is one of jealously and war-like rage. Cain becomes jealous when the Lord accepts an offering from Cain’s brother, Abel, but does not accept an offering from Cain. As a result, Cain kills Abel. When the Lord finds out, he banishes Cain from civilization, giving him a mark that will discourage others from killing him. This eternal banishment will be the punishment of anybody who dares murder in this new, hypothetical, culture, Longfellow tells his readers. Stanza Eleven Now that he has sketched out his plan for the perfect, peaceful society, Longfellow moves on into the future and tries to paint that future as a reality. He takes the reader down “the dark future, through long generations.” Here, in this distant future, “The echoing sounds” of the war music that has been played for millennia now “grow fainter and then cease.” Instead of these “discordant noises,” this future once again holds “sweet vibrations,” which sound “like a bell.” Invoking the Bible once again—this time the New Testament— Longfellow says that he can “hear once more the voice of Christ say, ‘Peace!’” By invoking both the Old and New Testaments, Longfellow is trying to underscore the fact that war is wrong and that both sections of the Bible will back him up on this idea. Stanza Twelve Longfellow starts this stanza with the word “Peace!” after ending the previous stanza with the same word. This emphasizes Longfellow’s message, forcing the reader to sit up and take notice. Now that Longfellow has sketched out his dream of a peaceful society, he takes one more look at the death organ, which is quiet once again: “no longer from its brazen portals / The blast of War’s great organ shakes the skies!” At this point, although he has started out by discussing the organ of death at the Springfield arsenal, the “great organ” now refers to the collective instrument of death that has been forged throughout the countless battles like those described in the poem. Finally, at the end of the poem, Longfellow, having silenced the music of war, has freed up space for the “holy melodies of love,” which are as “beautiful as songs of the immortals.” Humanity may not be able to hear the music of the celestial spheres, but it has the ability to create melodies that are equally as beautiful, if it will just learn to focus on love, not war.