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The Arrow and the Song by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song” is a beautiful poem about the contrast between an “arrow” and a “song”. This metaphorical piece portrays the “arrow” as a symbol of hatred and enmity. While the “song” is a symbol of amiability and love. By contrasting both of these ideas along with their reach and acceptability, Longfellow projects the superiority of the latter. As readers know, song or poetry has the ability to touch several hearts. While hatred can only produce the feeling of revenge in one’s heart.

The Arrow and the Song by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Summary

“The Arrow and the Song” is a poem about how the poet shot an arrow and breathed some melodic verses. In the first instance, the poet thinks both the arrow and song might have fallen to ground. But after a long time, when he came across the arrow inserted into an oak tree, unbroken. While his song found its place in a friend’s heart. In this way, Longfellow portrays the impact of a song as well as a word conveying hatred and bitterness.

Meaning

Longfellow conveys a moral lesson at the end of this piece. He talks about releasing an arrow into the air as well as some melodic verses of a song. Firstly, he thought both of them might have fallen to earth. He did not know where it had gone. Usually, none can locate the movement of an arrow in the air or someone’s words. However, after a long time, he discovered the arrow in an oak and his song in a friend’s heart. In this way, Longfellow describes how one’s spiteful words sow the seed of revenge in the listener’s heart. While a beautiful song is always appreciated by whoever hears it for the first time.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Form

“The Arrow and the Song” consists of three stanzas. Each stanza contains four rhyming lines. Longfellow uses the quatrain form for structuring the verse. He uses the first-person point of view in this poem. So, it is an example of a lyric poem.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of this piece is the conventional AABB scheme. It means each quatrain consists of two rhyming couplets. Therefore, the ideas of the set of two rhyming lines are tied together. This poem is written using the closed rhyme scheme as each quatrain presents a complete idea.

There are five pairs of rhyming words in this piece. These are:

  • “air” and “where”
  • “sight” and “flight”
  • “strong” and “song”
  • “oak” and “unbroke”
  • “end” and “friend”


Meter

The poem is composed of iambic tetrameter. It means each line consists of four iambs (unstressed-stressed). There are some trochees and anapests in the poem as well. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first stanza.

I shot/ an ar/-row in/-to the air,

It fell/ to earth,/ I knew/ not where;

For,/ so swift-/ly it flew,/ the sight

Could not/ fol-low/ it in/ its flight.

As readers can see, the overall stanza is in iambic tetrameter. There are a few variations. For example, the fourth foot of the first line and the third foot of the third line are anapestic. The first two feet of the fourth line are trochaic.

Longfellow uses a spondee in “Long, long”. Both of these words are stressed while reading.

Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Longfellow uses the following literary devices in his poem “The Arrow and the Song”.

  • Consonance: It occurs in “so swiftly,” “sight so,” “follow the flight,” and “Long, long”. In these examples, the consonant sounds “s”, “f”, and “l” are repeated.
  • Assonance: It occurs in “an arrow,” “not follow,” “it in its,” etc. In these examples, the vowel sounds “æ”, “aw”, and “i” are repeated in neighboring words.
  • Rhetorical Question: There is a rhetorical question in the last two lines of the second stanza. Here, the poet asks who can locate the flight of a song.
  • Palilogy: It occurs in the phrase “Long, long”.
  • Metaphor: Longfellow uses a metaphor in the line “I breathed a song into the air”. Here, singing is compared to an act of breathing. There is another metaphor in “the flight of song”. Here, the transmission of sound waves is compared to a flying object.
  • Enjambment: It occurs in the last two lines of the first and second stanzas. Longfellow connects these lines internally by using this device.


Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis

Stanza One

I shot an arrow into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where;

For, so swiftly it flew, the sight

Could not follow it in its flight.

The poetic persona in Longfellow’s poem “The Arrow and the Song” talks about shooting an arrow in the first stanza. First of all, the sing-song-like form of the poem gives an impression that the speaker is only talking about an arrow and releasing it into the air. But, after rereading the text, it becomes clear the hint is about something. Longfellow is talking about a symbolic “arrow” that stands for the spiteful words someone directs at another person.

It is as piercing as an arrow bolting directly to the heart. So, here the poet uses a metaphorical comparison as well. Whatsoever, the speaker anticipates the destination of the arrow. If one releases an arrow without a specific target, it can land anywhere. The poet argues that the arrow was so swift that he failed to notice its flight.

If readers understand the symbolism, they can decode the meaning of these lines. Here, Longfellow is not talking about cursing a particular person. Rather his words are based upon the emotion of hatred, spite, and revenge. These emotions when released from one’s heart can hurt anyone out there. It is like an arrow thrown into the air, that can hurt anyone. Likewise, when a person does an act out of revenge or hatred, it has a similar effect on humanity.

Stanza Two

I breathed a song into the air,

It fell to earth, I knew not where;

For who has sight so keen and strong,

That it can follow the flight of song?

In the second stanza, Longfellow talks about a song he sang to the world. Here, the “song” is a symbol of love, humanity, and compassion. He does not use the word “sing” here. Instead, he uses “breathe”. Like air, one has to inhale the spirit of humanity before singing a beautiful song.

In the first stanza, he talks about releasing the arrow. Here, he is talking about inhaling the air while singing. These activities are in contrast. The former act uses up one’s good energy. While the latter increases it.

In the following lines, Longfellow compares his song to an object that can fall to the ground. Sound does not fall to earth. But, the poet is anticipating his song might not have received a favorable audience. It is just his speculation as he cannot see anyone around.

He asks the audience who has such a keen and strong sight to notice the transmission of sound. In the last two lines, he uses another metaphor. Here, the comparison is made between a song and a flying object. Besides, he is not actually talking about the sense of vision here. Rather he talks about one’s ability to hear.

Stanza Three

Long, long afterward, in an oak

I found the arrow, still unbroke;

And the song, from beginning to end,

I found again in the heart of a friend.

The third stanza contains the climax of this piece along with a moral lesson. It begins with a repetition of the word “long”. Longfellow repeats this word twice to refer to a long span of time. He had sung the song and shot the arrow a long time ago.

At first, he discovered the arrow projecting from an oak tree. The arrow was still there and it was not broken. The acts of cruelty and hatred have a similar impression on others’ minds. They had a permanent mark on one’s heart. Besides, those acts are irreversible and permanent. The scar they have caused to a person cannot be removed. It is true that the scar heals naturally but the marks are still there. It teaches us that we should be more cautious before saying spiteful words.

In contrast to that, the speaker found that a friend listened to his song on that day. This song made a permanent place in his heart. It highlights the importance of love and compassion. A song originating from one’s loving heart is eternal and everlasting. The arrow and the song have the ability to make a permanent mark on one’s heart. The difference lies in the way that the mark reminds us of the person. In the song’s case, we remember the person with gratitude, love, and compassion. While the hateful words of a person incite vengeful feelings for him.

Themes

Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song” taps on the themes of humanity, revenge, compassion, love, and friendliness. Through this poem, Longfellow contrasts being friendly and compassionate with being spiteful. The words of love stay with us forever. They keep us reminding of the person who told us those words. Whereas, a person who is hateful towards others, is remembered in a similar vein. Such a person is not ever loved by a person. Longfellow highlights this point by using the symbols of an arrow and a song. The “song” represents humanity, love, and compassion. Whereas, the “arrow” is portrayed as a symbol of revenge and hatred.

Tone

The tone of the overall poem is inspirational, insightful, emotive, and thoughtful. In the first stanza, the tone dominant tone is spiteful. Here, the speaker talks about shooting an arrow into the air. It is not clear why he does so. The “arrow” is an instrument of hurting someone. So, through its symbolic meaning, readers can sense the tone of this section. While, in the second stanza, the tone is filled with compassion and hope. This stanza describes how the speaker sings a beautiful song with all his heart. In the last stanza, the poet contrasts their impact. Here, the tone becomes insightful and inspirational.

Historical Context

Longfellow’s poem “The Arrow and the Song” was first published in 1845 in a book by the same title. H.W. Longfellow is best-known for The Song of Hiawatha, Evangeline, and “Paul Revere’s Ride”. He was one of the Fireside Poets from New England. Much of his work belongs to the category of lyric poetry. His poetry shows versatility in using different poetic forms. He carefully decided the right metrical pattern that would be fit for the subject of his poetic ideas. His works are recognized for their melodious musicality. These features are also present in the poem “The Arrow and the Song”.

FAQs

What does the poem “The Arrow and the Song” mean?

The central idea of this piece deals with the way we use words and the meaning they convey to our listeners. For example, if one curses a person, the word has a negative impression on one’s mind. At the same place, if we tell something out of love and compassion, it stays with the person forever.

What message does the poem convey?

Through this poem, the poet conveys to readers to be cautious in what they tell others. One should not utter spiteful words to another as the pain those words inflict is permanent. At the same place, a beautiful song stays forever with a listener and it keeps him reminding of the person in a positive way.

Why was the arrow not broken?

The “arrow” acts as a symbol of revenge and spite in this poem. So, by the phrase “the arrow, still unbroke”, Longfellow talks about the effect of one’s vengeful words on a listener’s heart. The pain caused by those words is permanent. Here, the unbroken arrow stands for the pain it causes to another person.

Why is it difficult to see the flight of the song?

A song is heard, not seen. For this reason, it is impossible to see the flight of a song or sound. However, Longfellow is comparing the song to an arrow. That’s why he uses this analogy.

What does the poet mean by the flight of the song?

The poet is referring to the propagation of sound by the medium of air. Here, the song is compared to a flying object.

What does “breathed a song” mean?

It is a roundabout way of saying to sing a song. Here, Longfellow is talking about singing a song.

What is the meaning of “I shot an arrow into the air”?

It means that the poet has shot an arrow without a specific target. It can land anywhere and cause injury to anybody who comes across its path. In this line, Longfellow refers to the spiteful words that one utters remembering someone else. These words are like arrows released into the air.


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