Within the short poem, readers can find numerous examples of Longfellow utilizing poetic devices. For example, the entirety of ‘The Arrow and the Song‘ acts as a metaphor depicting the results of one’s actions, specifically those that are ephemeral or non-physical.
The Arrow and the Song Henry Wadsworth LongfellowI shot an arrow into the air,It fell to earth, I knew not where;For, so swiftly it flew, the sightCould not follow it in its flight.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?Long, long afterward, in an oakI found the arrow, still unbroke;And the song, from beginning to end,I found again in the heart of a friend.
Explore The Arrow and the Song
In the first quatrain of this poem, the speaker describes shooting an arrow into the sky and not knowing where it ended up. He watched it fly for a time, but his eyes were not swift enough to follow it to its end.
Utilizing the same structure in the second stanza, the poet describes letting their “song” loose into the heavens. In the same way, their eyes were not swift enough to follow where it went. This speaker asks, whose eyes would be capable of doing so? In the final stanza, the speaker describes finding both the arrow and his song.
Structure and Form
‘The Arrow and the Song’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD EEFF. The stanzas are divided into two couplets (sets of two lines) that create a very steady rhythm in the piece. The poet also chose to use iambic tetrameter in the poem. This means that each line contains four sets of two beats. The first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza as well as lines one and two of the third stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting examples and descriptions. Imagery should trigger the readers senses, inspiring them to imagine the scene in great detail. For example, “I breathed a song into the air, / It fell to earth.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “swiftly” and “sight” in stanza one and “follow” and “flight” in the fourth line of that stanza.
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.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by describing how they shot an arrow into the air. Longfellow uses very simple language throughout the three stanzas. This means that at a surface level, the poem does not feel complicated or overly poetic in its use of diction. The speaker goes on to describe how after they shot the arrow into the air, it fell to Earth and they knew “not where.” There is an inherent danger in this action when no one knows where the arrow could end up.
The arrow fell “swiftly” and fast enough to where the speaker’s eyes could not follow where it went in its flight.
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?
Using the same structure as is found in the first stanza, the poet describes breathing a “song into the air.” They let the song, a word that is often used to describe a poet’s verse, out into the air, and it fell down to Earth.
Here, the poet is likely creating a metaphor describing how as a poet puts out their writing into the world, they do not know exactly where it’s going to end up. They could not keep track of their own song, and, the speaker states, who could? Who has fast enough eyes to follow the “flight of a song?”
The implied answer to this question is that no one does. No one has the capability of following the impact of a song, or poem, as it is let loose on the Earth.
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 breaks the pattern the poet set out in the first and second stanzas. Here, the poet takes the reader beyond the events they have already outlined. He found the arrow “in an oak.” It had survived its fall “unbroke.” The arrow’s survival implies that it landed in a particularly lucky way. Plus, the fact that the speaker was able to find the arrow at all seems quite lucky.
They also find their song, “from beginning to end,” in the “heart of a friend.” His song (a metaphor for his poetry) landed somewhere that should please the poet—in his friend’s heart. This suggests that it moved the poet’s friend in such a way that it stuck with him.
The tone is descriptive and clear. The speaker is relaying events that he metaphorically took part in, and that happened around him in a direct way. He does not pass judgment on his own actions or on the actions of others. It is up to readers to interpret what exactly is going on in this piece and why it matters where the arrow or the poet’s song went.
The purpose is to allude to the broad and unknown implications associated with putting poetry out into the world. When one sings their song into the heavens or shoots an arrow into the sky, they will have no idea where either is going to land.
The speaker is likely meant to be the poet himself, at least in part. When the speaker describes letting a “song” loose into the world, this is likely meant to be a representation of the poet writing his verse and then wondering where it ended up and who read it.
The themes at work in this poem includes writing and the impact of one’s actions. No matter what one does in life, there are consequences. In the case of the poet, when he let his poetry into the sky, he found it again in the heart of his friend. It had a positive impact, but the mystery associated with letting an arrow, something far more dangerous, loose into the sky implies that a positive outcome is not guaranteed.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems, for example:
- ‘A Gleam of Sunshine’ – explores a variety of philosophical concepts through the use of familiar images like shadows, nature, and light.
- ‘A Nameless Grave’ – invites readers to think about how many nameless graves there are in the world, but specifically as a result of the American Civil War.
- ‘Afternoon in February’ – is a darker poem that explores sadness and how one’s personal sadness can be projected onto other elements of their life.
- ‘A Psalm of Life’ – speaks on the purpose of life and how struggles and sorrows should be handled as they appear along the way. Everyone has to face life and make the best of it everyday, the speaker concludes.