Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poetry could range from amusingly whimsical to deeply thought-provoking almost unpredictably from poem to poem. One thing, however, that was a clear source of his inspiration for the latter category, was the concept of faith. Divinity plays a role in a number of his poems, and Footsteps of Angels is, as the title certainly suggests, a prominent example of Longfellow’s interesting approach to taking a relatively simple approach to poetry and applying it to something that is both deep and wonderful.
Footsteps of Angels Analysis
When the hours of Day are numbered,
And the voices of the Night
Wake the better soul, that slumbered,
To a holy, calm delight;
Ere the evening lamps are lighted,
And, like phantoms grim and tall,
Shadows from the fitful firelight
Dance upon the parlor wall;
Longfellow begins Footsteps of Angels by describing a notable parallel that works as an intriguing introduction and as a framing device for most of the work to follow. The setting for Footsteps of Angels is a person’s home, as evening turns to night. Longfellow capitalizes the words “Day” and “Night” in the first verse, as if to describe them as being distinct and sentient entities that have power over the soul of the speaker. His word choice here is careful: the Night wakes the “better” soul, which suggests that the speaker feels as though they are a better person at night than they are during the day, perhaps because they are more likely to be alone, and be more true to who they are. The references to the soul are not the only religious elements of the poem’s beginning; nighttime is described as a holy time as well.
The second verse of Footsteps of Angels takes a slightly different approach, and expands on the idea of a holy nighttime. It exists to create strong contrast from the first verse by describing what might normally be considered a very eerie environment. The only light source described are the small fires from lamps, which offer little in the way of seeing and much in the way of dark shadows. This could almost be the introductory verse for a poem about a haunted house or about some form of depression, but instead, it follows on a verse about feeling calm and holy in the night. The shadows, even though they are “like phantoms,” do not seem very frightening, because of the sharp contrast from the previous verse, which set a very different atmosphere for the piece.
Then the forms of the departed
Enter at the open door;
The beloved, the true-hearted,
Come to visit me once more;
He, the young and strong, who cherished
Noble longings for the strife,
By the roadside fell and perished,
Weary with the march of life!
The next two verses expand on the holiness of the setting, and the third verse works as a welcome departure from the phantoms and shadows in the previous one. At first, it seems like Longfellow wants to expand on the haunting vibe — dead people are walking inside the house! — but these seem likely to be friends and family of the poem’s narrator, who notes that this is not an unusual occurrence. Specifically, the next verse sees a recognition of one of the forms in the doorway, and begins to describe him as being young, strong, noble, and, of course, dead. He is described as having “cherished / Noble longings for strife,” suggesting that he respected hardships and struggle and was no stranger to either, finally passing away with the weight of the world on his shoulders. This might also suggest to the reader that the speaker within the poem is a lonely person — whether this is a dream or reality, it is clear that they have lost a number of people close to them, or at least whom they’ve looked up to, over the course of their life.
They, the holy ones and weakly,
Who the cross of suffering bore,
Folded their pale hands so meekly,
Spake with us on earth no more!
And with them the Being Beauteous,
Who unto my youth was given,
More than all things else to love me,
And is now a saint in heaven.
The fifth verse of Footsteps of Angels is largely about the titular concept, and is actually very straightforward in its meaning — it simply states that all of these arrivals are holy ghosts, who endured suffering during their lifetimes before quietly passing away, without ceremony or crowds, or even much recognition. The language used throughout the verse is very telling, however. Longfellow uses terms such as “the holy ones,” “cross of suffering,” and “us on earth” to add an older, more romanticized feel to the work. The straightforward meaning of the verse is hidden somewhat behind the language and grammatical conventions, but these serve to highlight the miraculous nature of the poem’s events. In particular, this informs the following verse, which introduces the Being Beauteous (translated simply as “beautiful being”), whom the speaker remembers as a loving influence in their youth, now a heavenly saint. The ideas of love and holiness are clearly presented in these verses as having a particular and important relationship.
With a slow and noiseless footstep
Comes that messenger divine,
Takes the vacant chair beside me,
Lays her gentle hand in mine.
And she sits and gazes at me
With those deep and tender eyes,
Like the stars, so still and saint-like,
Looking downward from the skies.
The Being Beauteous walks silently through the house of the speaker, and she is described as being very “saint-like,” a literal description that hardly seems necessary — Longfellow uses these verses to describe the being’s silent steps, gentle hands, caring eyes, and, most notably, the fact that she both sits beside and looks down on the speaker simultaneously (though how literal these descriptions are is not entirely clear). These descriptions create an aura of caring and mystery both around her, but there is no sense that she is anything other than loving in these scenes.
Uttered not, yet comprehended,
Is the spirit’s voiceless prayer,
Soft rebukes, in blessings ended,
Breathing from her lips of air.
Oh, though oft depressed and lonely,
All my fears are laid aside,
If I but remember only
Such as these have lived and died!
The first line of the second-to-last verse is an excellent way of expressing the mystery and joy that follows this spirit — the speaker states that she does not speak to them, but they can still understand perfectly their desire and will. They “softly rebuke,” as if this is a ritual of confession. The idea of a soft rebuke is something of an oxymoron — a rebuke is usually a sharp criticism — but that fits well with the idea of this spectral, angelic figure representing divinity in some form. When the narrator hears this rebuke, they find their depression lifts and their fears alleviate, inspired as they are by the very existence of such people as the Being Beauteous.
Footsteps of Angels is, at face value, a poem about a figure who encounters the deceased people from their past and finds their inspiration in the idea that these people are now angels and saints in Heaven. This poem can be thought of as a reflection on religion, faith, and spirituality as means of consolation and comfort in life, but the meaning likely goes deeper than this. Longfellow’s character is inspired by the very idea that such good people have walked the world, so much so that the initially frightening setting turns out to be a safe and gentle place to be, and that doesn’t have to be a religious moment. The poem discusses finding a haven from loneliness and depression, and turning into one’s self to overcome those issues. How each individual reader will interpret the speaker’s experience would be largely up to their own relationship with spirituality — the speaker could even be hallucinating the experience as a means of self-defence against their depression.
Ultimately, the thematic value of the poem is unique enough and defined enough that the reader can come to their own conclusions on what the story means to them, and how they feel about the narrator’s experiences with their lost loved ones.