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.
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...
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