A Nameless Grave by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Was is, to put it lightly, a very touching subject for any who have been influenced by one in any way. Throughout history, the influence of war can be seen in a myriad of ways, and in particular is reflected in many forms of art that have survived throughout the ages. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has written his own poetry inspired by the grim conflicts that surrounded his life, and A Nameless Grave is one of the well-known examples of the influence they had on his career as a writer, and he demonstrates his particular skill in the field as he laments over the very powerful emotions that describe his response to those horrific events in his own life.


Historical Context

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was never a soldier himself, though he was scarcely unaffected by war efforts. His mother’s father a soldier in the American Revolutionary War, and he was alive and well into his career when the American Civil War broke out. While the American Civil War was being waged, Longfellow was a public supporter of abolitionism, having published a collection of poetry, Poems on Slavery, earlier in his career. As much as he desired an end to slavery in the Americas, he was also notable against the war at all, and wished the Union and Confederacy could peacefully resolve their issues. These preferences were undoubtedly strengthened when his son, Charles Longfellow, was killed fighting for the Union during the war.

Understanding Longfellow’s preference for peace and personal feelings about the significant war that took place in his lifetime is important contextual information to have when reading A Nameless Grave. It is easy to imagine that Longfellow saw his own son as being the fallen soldier buried in a nameless grave. Although that body was returned home and buried with his family, it is likely that his son’s occupation and death forged a very personal connection between Longfellow and the many, many soldiers who fought and died during the American Civil War, and this is reflected strongly in A Nameless Grave.


A Nameless Grave Poem

‘A soldier of the Union mustered out,’

Is the inscription on an unknown grave

At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave,

Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout

Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout

Of battle, when the loud artillery drave

Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave

And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt.

Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea

In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame

I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn,

When I remember thou hast given for me

All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name,

And I can give thee nothing in return.


A Nameless Grave Analysis

A Nameless Grave is written as a Petrarchan sonnet, which means that structurally, it can be divided into two distinct parts, an octet and a sestet, with their own rhymes and style. In a Petrarchan sonnet, as with this poem, the octet rhymes as ABBA-ABBA, while the sestet rhymes as CDECDE. The sestet structure is commonly considered typical for this kind of poem, though it is not a rigid rule, and is open to flexibility and interpretation, though Longfellow opted not to take his liberties with this style.

A Nameless Grave begins, appropriately, with the inscription on the titular grave:

‘A soldier of the Union mustered out,’

Is the inscription on an unknown grave

“Mustered out” is an expression that would usually refer to leaving the service of the army, which is, in a way, what the unmarked individual has done, though certainly not in the way they surely had hoped for. The description on the grave is notably cold and brief; it mentions who the soldier fought for, but not their name, and it mentions that they’ve died, but doesn’t say how.

At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave,

Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout

Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout

Of battle, when the loud artillery drave

Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave

And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt.

The next part of the poem is notable for its semi-vivid imagery and lack of metaphoric language to convey the could-have’s for the unknown soldier. The reader learns that the soldier is buried near a Virginian coast (Newport News is a riverside city in that State), but, as this verse notes, not when or how. The narration of the poem moves through a list of possible ways to die during the American Civil War: being shot, becoming lost in retreat (or “rout”), or crushed by artillery fire. The description of “doomed” battalions suggests that the unknown observer is imagining a disorderly and fragmented raid on an equally disorderly and fragmented fortress that resulted in the deaths of most of the battalion, including the soldier that inspired the musings.

Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea

In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame

The use of the word “thou” here adds a kind of fervour and reverence to the verse, and emphasizes the idea that this soldier is a hero heavily. The description of “sleeping” implies that the war is over at this point, and gives an impression of peace for the reader. The exclamation point that highlights the “forgotten” grave adds emotion to the phrase, but also serves to imply that the speaker feels that the peaceful, forgotten gravesite is wrong. “Forgotten” is the emphasized term here, because a hero should not be unknown or forgotten.

I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn,

When I remember thou hast given for me

All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name,

And I can give thee nothing in return.

When the poem’s narrator finally comments towards the end of the poem, the emotional nature of the sonnet reaches its climax. “With secret shame,” they describe their reaction to the idea that this soldier doesn’t even have a name to be remembered by anymore. The grave marker indicated that the fallen soldier fought for the Union, the element of the United States that was victorious at the end of their Civil War. Their victory helped to make the abolition of slavery a reality in their country, and significantly impacted its growth. For the narrator of the poem, the idea that they no longer have a name to be remembered by after having fought for that reality is a tragedy, and they feel humiliated to acknowledge that they can do nothing but stand by the grave and feel their shame.

Longfellow uses the words “pulse” and “burn” to strongly echo his character’s reaction to the gravesite, and strongly emphasizes the importance of the soldier’s name being lost. It does not matter who they were specifically — they were a soldier who died fighting for the Union, and this makes them a hero. It is likely that this poem is meant as a demonstration of Longfellow’s own feelings towards the war heroes of his day. Realistically, a great many war heroes are nameless to a great many people, either because their bodies are lost in the wilderness, as in A Nameless Grave, or because of people who simply don’t know the names of others who have died in wars now ended. In A Nameless Grave, Longfellow is inviting his audience to think about how many nameless graves there are, literally and metaphorically, in the minds of the people who’s lives are better because of those sacrifices.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What's your thoughts? Join the conversation by commenting
We make sure to reply to every comment submitted, so feel free to join the community and let us know by commenting below.

Get more Poetry Analysis like this in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list and get new poetry analysis updates straight to your inbox.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
>
Scroll Up