A Gleam of Sunshine by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow stood among the most popular poets of his time, and he was well-known for poems that could be lighthearted and amusing, thought-provoking and intelligent, or, at times, all four at once. Many of his talents are on display while reading through A Gleam of Sunshine, one of his longer and finer works that explores a number of philosophical concepts by using poetic devices as a uniting medium. These kinds of works are among the most interesting ways of utilizing any kind of artistic talent, and Longfellow’s A Gleam of Sunshine stands out among its contemporaries — just as its name might suggest it does.


A Gleam of Sunshine Analysis

This is the place. Stand still, my steed,
Let me review the scene,
And summon from the shadowy Past
The forms that once have been.

One of the first things that stands out throughout A Gleam of Sunshine is the flow to the piece. The rhyming structure — ABCB — is consistent, each line is roughly the same length in corresponding verses, and none of the rhymes are forced. This is a very easy-to-read poem, one that flows nicely and attempts to sweep the reader away, get them to keep on reading, because it’s so easy to do so. The fantastical imagery helps with this — “This is the place” could easily be the opening line for a fantasy novel (or many other kinds of novel, though the word “steed” does have that connotation to it), and descriptions such as “shadowy Past” help to build this image. Where “the place” is and why it is important for the speaker to be there to view their own past is left to abstraction… which is a good thing, since this is just an introductory verse. It does its job well, and introduces.

The Past and Present here unite
Beneath Time’s flowing tide,
Like footprints hidden by a brook,
But seen on either side.

The second verse begins a description of the vague place the speaker arrived at in the previous one. In this place, the verse explains, time flows differently, and can be viewed together. The concluding simile suggests the experience is like knowing something is hidden away, and suddenly being able to see it. Interestingly, the words “past,” “present,” and time” are capitalized where they appear, including in the first verse. By capitalizing these words, Longfellow suggests they are proper nouns, and so implies that they are names, rather than concepts. It is also possible that the capitalization is meant as a kind of deification, as is traditional in many religious practices. Whatever the intention, the emphasis for importance is clear and useful when trying to assess meaning.

Here runs the highway to the town;
There the green lane descends,
Through which I walked to church with thee,
O gentlest of my friends!

The third verse describes the same place in a physical sense, rather than a metaphoric or abstract one. This is important, because up to this point, there has been very little indication that the speaker is not on an entirely personal or metaphoric journey. That they take particular note of a nearby highway, on which they and an old friend would often walk to church in days gone by. They describe the greenness of the grass and the gentle nature of their friend, two images which both convey brightness, calmness, and peacefulness for the reader. Longfellow’s use of the word “thee” also suggests a rustic, romantic kind of atmosphere for the piece, especially since the “thee” acts as the “C-rhyme;” it doesn’t actually rhyme with anything, and could have been substituted with a more common word.

The shadow of the linden-trees
Lay moving on the grass;
Between them and the moving boughs,
A shadow, thou didst pass.

The central image for this verse is shadows; the word is repeated once, and the image is used to frame the other natural images that make up this part of the story. The trees, grass, and boughs are described here, while the gentle friend of the speaker is brought up only in passing, as they move throughout the scene. Longfellow’s use of “thou didst” makes the tense a little more difficult to assess than usual, but it’s important to keep in mind that the speaker is likely experiencing a flashback, in this place where past and present unite, as described earlier. That the speaker remembers something as simple as the friend’s movement in a place they once frequented together says a lot about the closeness of their relationship, raising the question of why the speaker is standing here alone.

Thy dress was like the lilies,
And thy heart as pure as they:
One of God’s holy messengers
Did walk with me that day.

The romantic tone of the previous verse becomes much more overt here, and takes on a secondary meaning — comparing a person’s dress and heart to lilies would be unusual as a casual compliment. This verse goes even further than that, citing the girl in question (presumably a girl, in any case) as being angelic in nature, which fits with the original introduction that she is the gentlest friend the speaker had ever known. This is clearly a very fond memory, and the fact that the speaker has returned to this place to remember her is a very important piece of information; frames the entire poem, which seems to be more about the past than the present at this point.

I saw the branches of the trees
Bend down thy touch to meet,
The clover-blossoms in the grass
Rise up to kiss thy feet,

The meaning behind this next verse is very straightforward — it is prefaced with the words “I saw,” which means the speaker is using personification to impose their own feelings on the world around them. They imagine that all of nature is trying to draw itself closer to this person, simply for the sake of being around her, as the speaker evidently wishes they could.

“Sleep, sleep to-day, tormenting cares,
Of earth and folly born!”
Solemnly sang the village choir
On that sweet Sabbath morn.

From here, the story jumps ahead in the flashback, to a time spent in the church that the two friends visited for Sunday (Sabbath) service. The memory shared here is one of the church choir singing about the idea that on this day, there is no need for worldly fears or concerns. The idea that mankind is safe under God’s gaze works as a parallel to the idea presented earlier, that the woman encountered is one of “God’s holy messengers.” That the speaker remembers this song in particular because while the choir was singing, they felt as though they were literally free from their worldly cares, protected by an angel they had arrived with. The memory of this “sweet Sabbath” is emphasized slightly by that alliteration, but the integration of song and verse is the highlight of the speaker’s feelings at the time, and their memory of it long afterwards.

Through the closed blinds the golden sun
Poured in a dusty beam,
Like the celestial ladder seen
By Jacob in his dream.

This next verse carries immediate importance, because it begins to describe the titular image, a single ray of sunshine gleaming through the church windows. This image is given divine significance when the speaker compares it to Jacob’s visions. In Abrahamic tradition, Jacob was a Prophet of God who is widely considered the father and founder of Israel, and the grandson of Abraham, who is considered the founder of faiths still common today, including Judaism and Islam. For the narration of the poem to choose such an important person to his faith to represent this beam of light says a lot about their emotional state at the time of seeing it. It makes sense to think they are influenced by their feelings for their companion, and feel as though they are being blessed in some form, and that the gleam of sunshine is a kind of confirmation of that idea.

And ever and anon, the wind,
Sweet-scented with the hay,
Turned o’er the hymn-book’s fluttering leaves
That on the window lay.

The scents and sounds of the church are described in much greater detail than would normally be associated with a memory. That the wind was brief but consistent, that it brought on it the smell of hay, that there was an open book on the window with fluttering pages — these are all details that would ordinarily be too mundane to keep in mind. Once again, we see the passion the speaker has for this particular day, and Longfellow’s care in making sure his readers understand the significance of the memory.

Long was the good man’s sermon,
Yet it seemed not so to me;
For he spake of Ruth the beautiful,
And still I thought of thee.

Ruth, as a biblical figure, is a prominent figure in the Judaic Torah and the Christian Old Testament, where she is remembered as a selfless and faithful woman worthy of remembrance and honour. In Christian tradition, she is believed to be an early ancestor for Jesus. The speaker remembers this woman he’s met as being so wonderful that he cannot find interest in the story of a beautiful, strong, and loving woman who is a figure in a faith that they clearly care a great deal about, based on the high number of religious metaphors and ideas that have been present in the work thus far. Those ideas give this one its great significance.

Long was the prayer he uttered,
Yet it seemed not so to me;
For in my heart I prayed with him,
And still I thought of thee.

This verse appears to say very much the same thing as the one preceding it, but the repetition of the idea works in the story’s favour. It is clear that the speaker cannot emphasize enough the importance of this encounter, and the depth of their happiness at having met and gone to church with this one woman. The repetition of the religious imagery, the romanticized English, and the alteration of time passing are all very important additions for the speaker and the author.

But now, alas! the place seems changed;
Thou art no longer here:
Part of the sunshine of the scene
With thee did disappear.

Abruptly, the poem returns the reader to the present day, and reimagines the title image. Sunshine plays a very subtle, but important role in this piece. It acts as a metaphor for goodness and hope, and also for divinity, as a kind of holy essence to suggest to the speaker that God is present. With the sunlight dimmed, there is less of everything that is good in this place. There is no explanation presented for the disappearance of the girl, but it is clear that the narrator does not expect her to return. The first line of the verse points out that the place “seems” changed — which means that it is, in actuality, unchanged from the last time, described in such detail in an earlier verse. The presence of the angelic woman was enough to change the speaker’s perception of everything she touched, and now we see the influence that has had.

Though thoughts, deep-rooted in my heart,
Like pine-trees dark and high,
Subdue the light of noon, and breathe
A low and ceaseless sigh;


This memory brightens o’er the past,
As when the sun, concealed
Behind some cloud that near us hangs
Shines on a distant field.

The final two verses of the poem work well together to bring a sense of conclusion and, most importantly, return a sense of hope into the piece as a whole. The speaker’s thoughts contrast sharply with nearly every image presented in this lengthy poem thus far: deep roots, which are twisted and pale; pine trees, which black out sunlight and never lose their shade; and the idea of subduing, which is a very negative word to use. All of these ideas break the speaker away from the memory, which was joyous and happy, and remind the reader that in the present, they are secretly miserable for having lost this wonderful woman.

The second-to-last verse begins with the word “though,” however, indicating that there is hope to be found in the narrative. The final verse points out that a bright past is better than a bleak one, even if the present is bleak in either case, and imagines that gleam of sunshine as being hidden just behind a cloud in the sky. This image suggests that even though the narrator can no longer see that sunlight, it still has to exist somewhere — likewise, the woman he met is alive and somewhere in the world, and the world seems to be brighter for that simple truth.

Longfellow chose to end A Gleam of Sunshine on a hopeful, if melancholy, note, which seems like a fitting conclusion for the story. Often, good things happen to good people, but they are brief, and simply fade into memory shortly after those events conclude. Longfellow seems to have wanted to remind his readers that happy memories are good things, and that it is unwise to become stuck in the past, to reach that place where past and present are one and the same, and to spend so much time there as to be able to recreate that memory perfectly. The protagonist in his story seems to be learning that lesson slowly, but perhaps he had hoped his readers might glean a thing or two from their experience anyway.

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