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.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Arsenal at Springfield” is structured in three parts. The first part, stanzas 1 and 2, describes the stored arms at the arsenal in terms of “a huge organ,” thus creating an image related to music that the rest of the poem develops, and it provides a generalized statement regarding the agony of war. Stanzas 3-8, the second part of the poem, briefly summarize the horrors of war throughout the world and the ages by citing races and geographical areas noted for legendary warlike behavior. The final part of the poem, stanzas 9-12, looks forward to a time of peace, when war will no longer be a blight on human experience.

In order to emphasize the contrast between the music of war and the music of peace, Longfellow employs aural images throughout the poem, building on the idea of the organ from the first stanza. In stanza 2, the “death-angel” who “touches those swift keys” creates “wild and dreary” music and “awful symphonies.” In stanzas 4 and 5, even the references to warlike races and geographical areas is relayed through discordant and loud sounds: a hammer, a gong, a “battle-bell,” and war drums. The reader can imagine the sounds of actual fighting in stanzas 7 and 8: “The bursting shell, the gateway wrenched asunder,/ The rattling musketry, the clashing blade.” These harsh sounds coming from “accursed instruments” contrast with “Nature’s sweet and kindly voices” and “the celestial harmonies” of peace....

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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

United States War of Independence
Longfellow’s poem is a plea for peace. However, instead of setting the poem in the modern...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

The most obvious technique that Longfellow uses is metaphor. The organ of war comes to life from the moment he...

(The entire section is 654 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

Late 1770s–Mid 1780s: Outraged by massive taxation without representation and seeking to gain their independence from Britain, the...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

The American Revolution earned the United States independence from Britain. Research one other culture from any period in history that has...

(The entire section is 359 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

War poetry was common in many of the ancient societies of Europe, but no writer is more wellknown or revered than Homer, a Greek poet who is...

(The entire section is 334 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Arvin, Newton, Longfellow: His Life and Work, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1963, p. 75.

Austin, George...

(The entire section is 514 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

Gale, Robert L. A Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Gartner, Matthew. “Longfellow’s Place: The Poet and Poetry of Craigie House.” The New England Quarterly 73, no. 1 (March, 2000): 32-57.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Continuity of American Poetry. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

Suchard, Allen. “The Nineteenth Century: Romanticism in American Poetry.” In American Poetry. Amherst:...

(The entire section is 148 words.)