Introduction

The Arsenal at Springfield cover image

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Arsenal at Springfield,” first published in 1845 in America, is considered by many critics to be Longfellow’s most effective antiwar poem. The idea for the poem came on Longfellow’s wedding trip to the famous arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts, which supplied many of the guns used during the American Revolution. At the suggestion of his wife, Fanny, and inspired by the writings of his friend, the peace crusader Charles Sumner—who was also present at the tour of the arsenal—Longfellow wrote a poem that offered a desperate plea for peace. The many rows of guns in the arsenal, which in Longfellow’s estimation resembled a pipe organ, provided a vivid image to launch his poem. In fact, many critics have commented on the effectiveness of the images in the poem, which offer a gritty tour through the ravaging effects of human war, as well as a preview of what a peaceful society could be like.

The poem was widely known in its time. Sumner was one of many engaged in a vigorous antiwar—and in some cases antislavery—debate, so Longfellow’s poem was timely. The poet’s reputation declined after his death, and the debate over the worth of his works still rages. Still, “The Arsenal at Springfield” forever commemorates the actual arsenal, which today is housed in the museum of the historic Springfield Armory. The arsenal is known as the Organ of Muskets—as a result of Longfellow’s depiction in the poem. A current copy of the poem can be found in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Selected Poems, published by Penguin Classics in 1988.