Afternoon in February by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

‘Afternoon in February’ by Longfellow is a poem that explores profound sadness, and, more notable, the way that people can see their sadness in every aspect of life when the feeling is strong enough.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was well known in his lifetime for lyrical poems that told stories for his readers. Many of these works were humorous or light-spirited in nature, but this did not mean that the famous poet was incapable of powerful and deeply affecting pieces as well. ‘Afternoon in February’ is one of Longfellow’s more grim works, one that explores profound sadness, and, more notable, the way that people can see their sadness in every aspect of life when the feeling is strong enough.

Afternoon in February by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Afternoon in February Analysis

First and Second Stanza

The day is ending,

The night is descending;

The marsh is frozen,

The river dead. 

Through clouds like ashes

The red sun flashes

On village windows

That glimmer red. 

Longfellow’s poetic style in ‘Afternoon in February’ is different from his “usual” convention, in that the lyrical scheme of each verse is dependent on the one that follows it. The reader will note an AABC pattern in the first verse, followed by a DDEC pattern in the second. Each line is also markedly short, being only a few words and a handful of syllables long, which makes this six-verse poem feel more like three verses when read together. The likely purpose behind this pattern is twofold: first, it creates a sense of cohesion across the entire piece; it blurs the lines between verses and works to create a lyrical whole, which works so well because this is a poem largely about the atmosphere. Secondly, the short verses create a sense of quickened pace that the poem benefits from; when read aloud, it passes by very quickly, as an afternoon in February typically does — the days are short, and the afternoons even shorter, at least when judged by amounts of daylight at a time of year when there is typically very little sun to light the sky.

That absence of light is exactly how Longfellow begins his piece, with the transition from afternoon into evening, an odd choice, considering the title of the poem. Not simply an afternoon in February, the setting here is the end of an afternoon in February, and Longfellow dedicates the first two verses of his work to describing the process. Because of the short length of his lines, Longfellow only has a few chances to convey the intended atmosphere to the reader straight away, and in the first verse, describes a frozen marsh and a dead river. His choice in imagery is powerful, because both images are simultaneously literal and metaphorical. In fact, the description assigned to each setting is more appropriate to the opposing one — a dead marsh and a frozen river would make a great deal more sense in relation to what each one looks like in February. A frozen marsh is one that is still alive in some form, and a dead river still flows — this winter is dark, but not hopeless.

The second verse builds on this theme, by invoking lighter imagery, notably the flashing red sun. Longfellow’s description of “clouds like ashes” keeps the piece at a sober, grim kind of tone. In all, these first two verses only really describe a village by a river and a marsh in the winter. It’s evening time, and the setting sun peeks out between the clouds. That this description takes up a full third of the poem says a great deal about the importance of the deeply set atmosphere in ‘Afternoon in February’.

Third and Fourth Stanza

The snow recommences;

The buried fences

Mark no longer

The road o’er the plain; 

While through the meadows,

Like fearful shadows,

Slowly passes

A funeral train. 

The third and fourth verses are very similar to the first and second in the sense that very little happens, but there’s a great deal of description and atmospheric detail. In the third verse, the only thing that actually happens is that it begins snowing again, in keeping with the February setting. There is an old-fashioned feel to the village setting, where the fences are not very high, and the snowfall is enough to cover it completely. The image of a large white field without marking or signage is an important segue into the fourth verse, where it becomes clear that the only visible aspect of the scenery is a funeral procession. Despite there being no narrator to draw a connection between the scenery descriptions and the unfolding events, there is a clear reason for the grim atmosphere described earlier. Longfellow makes good use of the shortened verses. “Slowly passes” is its own line in a verse that is entirely devoted to the one event — a very slowly paced verse for a very slow-moving event.

Fifth and Sixth Stanza

The bell is pealing,

And every feeling

Within me responds

To the dismal knell; 

Shadows are trailing,

My heart is bewailing

And tolling within

Like a funeral bell.

The decision to only introduce a narrator for the poem in the second-to-last verse is an interesting idea by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but it concludes ‘Afternoon in February’ with a stronger emotional touch than the atmospherics that preceded its introduction. In light of the funeral procession, it must seem to the speaker as though the entire world is responding with sadness to the passing of the deceased. The descriptions from before now make sense in the context of the story being told — we see a person mourning a death during a time of year when a lot of the natural world is either dead or in some form of hibernation. The result is a viewpoint for a February afternoon that is dismal and unhappy, noting the shadows and the frozen wildlife and the river that has no life within it. The speaker declares that every feeling they have is responding to the unhappy tone of the funeral bell, and their own heartbeat is slow and sad as well. With this in mind, it makes perfect sense that they would see the world in great detail, passing by slowly, and in sobering detail.

The way ‘Afternoon in February’ explores the idea of a worldview changing to accommodate feeling means that much of this poem consists of imageries and metaphors. There is very little in the way of an actual story to follow, but rather an overwhelming sense of sadness that permeates each detail of the work. Whether or not ‘Afternoon in February’ is based on an actual event in Longfellow’s life is unknown, but his depiction of the world turned dark in the wake of tragedy is powerful and moving regardless.

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Andrew Walker Poetry Expert
Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.
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