The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Arsenal at Springfield” is a pacifistic, antiwar poem made up of twelve quatrains of loosely iambic pentameter lines, centering on the horrors of war and foreseeing an epoch in which peace replaces the need for arms. Longfellow uses the initial “organ-like” appearance of the “pipes” of the stashed arms as a basis to contrast the music of war to the music of peace throughout the rest of the poem.

The first and second stanzas briefly describe the munitions stored in the Massachusetts armory and point out how their present disuse contrasts with what happens during war when “the death-angel” commands weaponry, resulting in “cries of agony” and “loud lament.” Stanzas 3-8 summarize the history and the misery of wars “through the ages” around the world—“the Saxon hammer” in Germany and England, the “roars” of “the Norseman’s song” in Scandinavia, “the Tartar gong” in Asia, the Florentine and “his battle-bell” in Italy, and the “Aztec priests” beating “wild war-drums” in Mexico. Stanza 6 includes a striking summary of the devastation of war: the “sacked and burning” towns, the disregarded pleas “for mercy,” and the cry of the hungry. Stanza 8 contrasts the “discordant noises” of war with “Nature’s sweet and kindly voices,” thus emphasizing the unnaturalness of fighting and killing, which conflict with the peaceful existence of the heavens.

The last four stanzas of the poem describe what a peaceful future might be like. Stanzas 9 and 10 note that if only human beings would use “half the power” and “half the wealth” devoted to arms “to redeem the human mind from error,” the future could be free of slaughter and wars. In such a peaceful age, were any nation to start a war, it would be cursed. In stanzas 11 and 12, the poet continues to foresee such an age in biblical terms, with Christ saying “‘Peace!’” and the hoped-for future described as being as “beautiful” as the heavenly “songs of the immortals” pictured in the Book of Revelation.