‘The Broken Oar‘ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tells the story of a wandering poet who seeks a final word to conclude his writing. Along a solitary Icelandic strand, he encounters the power of nature with billowing waves and circling seagulls. A broken oar washes ashore, bearing an inscription of weariness.
Moved by this connection, the poet writes the words and then discards his pen, accepting the limitations of language. The poem explores themes of closure, the human experience of weariness, and the ineffable nature of profound emotions. Below is the full poem:
The Broken Oar Henry Wadsworth LongfellowOnce upon Iceland's solitary strand A poet wandered with his book and pen, Seeking some final word, some sweet Amen Wherewith to close the volume in his hand. The billows rolled and plunged upon the sand, The circling sea-gulls swept beyond his ken, And from the parting cloud-rack now and then Flashed the red sunset over sea and land. Then by the billows at his feet was tossed A broken oar; and carved thereon he read, "Oft was I weary, when I toiled at thee"; And like a man, who findeth what was lost, He wrote the words, then lifted up his head, And flung his useless pen into the sea.
Explore The Broken Oar
‘The Broken Oar‘ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a poem that tells the story of a poet who finds himself on Iceland’s desolate shore, carrying a book and pen.
The poet yearns for a perfect ending, a poignant conclusion for his written work. As he strolls along the beach, the powerful waves crash and surge against the sand while seagulls soar above, almost out of sight. Occasionally, glimpses of the fiery sunset emerge from behind the dispersing clouds, casting a vibrant red hue across the sea and land.
Amidst this picturesque backdrop, the poet’s attention is captured by a broken oar tossed ashore by the relentless waves. Intrigued, he examines it and discovers an inscription carved upon it. The words etched on the oar reveal the toil and weariness experienced by its previous owner. Moved by this message, the poet sees a connection between his own struggles and the weary soul who once relied on this oar.
Inspired by this encounter, the poet decides to memorialize this shared experience. He retrieves his pen, poised to inscribe the profound words he has just read. Filled with a sense of purpose, he lifts his head and gazes into the distance, contemplating the significance of this moment. Then, with a decisive motion, he tosses his pen into the sea, recognizing that his written words can never fully capture the depth of emotion he has experienced.
In ‘The Broken Oar,’ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow encapsulates a fleeting moment of revelation and self-discovery. The poem highlights the poet’s yearning for a meaningful conclusion, his encounter with a relic of another’s weariness, and his ultimate decision to let go of his pen as a symbol of accepting the limitations of language in expressing profound human experiences.
Structure and Form
‘The Broken Oar‘ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow follows a structured and formal composition consisting of a single stanza that spans fourteen lines. The poem adheres to a specific rhyming scheme, utilizing the traditional form of a sonnet.
In terms of structure, the poem is divided into two parts. The first eight lines present the poet’s setting and contemplative state, while the remaining six lines capture a transformative moment. This division creates a clear shift in tone and subject matter.
The poem adheres to the rhyme scheme of an Italian sonnet, also known as a Petrarchan sonnet. The first eight lines, known as the octave, follow an ABBAABBA pattern, where each letter represents a specific rhyme. This scheme contributes to a sense of stability and symmetry.
The final six lines, referred to as the sestet, adopt a more flexible rhyme scheme. The first three lines follow a CDE pattern, while the remaining three lines have a CDE rhyme scheme. This variation in rhyme scheme within the sestet contributes to the poem’s transition and emphasizes the moment of realization and action.
The use of a structured form, such as the sonnet, allows Longfellow to contain his thoughts within a specific framework, enhancing the poem’s coherence and aesthetic appeal. The deliberate adherence to the sonnet’s structure showcases the poet’s craftsmanship and mastery of poetic conventions.
Through the precise structuring and use of the sonnet form, Longfellow effectively conveys the emotional journey and resolution of the poet in ‘The Broken Oar.’ The structured form helps to emphasize the themes of reflection, transformation, and the limitations of language in expressing profound experiences.
In his poem ‘The Broken Oar,’ Wadsworth Longfellow addresses several themes that resonate throughout the work.
One prominent theme is the search for closure or resolution. The poet wanders with his book and pen, seeking a “final word, some sweet Amen” to conclude his writing. This desire for a satisfying ending reflects a universal human longing for completeness and meaning.
Another theme explored in the poem is the power of nature. Longfellow vividly describes the billowing waves, the circling seagulls, and the red sunset over the sea and land. These natural elements convey a sense of awe and the world’s vastness, juxtaposing the poet’s inner contemplation with the immensity of the external world.
A third theme emerges from the encounter with the broken oar: weariness and resilience. The inscription on the oar reveals the previous owner’s fatigue, emphasizing the toil and struggle experienced in life. The poet recognizes this weariness and finds a connection between his own struggles and the hardships endured by others.
Connected to weariness is the theme of self-discovery. The poet’s encounter with the broken oar leads to a moment of revelation. He recognizes the shared human experience of weariness and reflects on his own journey. This realization prompts him to take action, symbolized by throwing his pen into the sea, indicating a newfound understanding of the limitations of language and the need for actions to speak louder than words.
Lastly, a theme of letting go and acceptance resonates in the poem. By discarding his pen, the poet symbolically releases the need to find the perfect words. He accepts the limitations of language and embraces the idea that some experiences cannot be fully captured or expressed through writing. This act of letting go signifies a moment of acceptance and surrender to the inherent mysteries of life.
Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language
Wadsworth Longfellow employs various poetic techniques and figurative language in ‘The Broken Oar‘ to effectively convey his message.
- Imagery: One of the techniques used is imagery, which evokes vivid sensory experiences. For instance, Longfellow describes the “billows rolled and plunged upon the sand” and the “circling sea-gulls swept beyond his ken.” These visual descriptions immerse the reader in the coastal setting and create a sense of movement and vastness.
- Personification: The poet also uses personification to animate the elements of nature. The billows are described as “rolled and plunged,” giving them human-like actions and intensifying their impact. The seagulls are portrayed as “circling,” emphasizing their graceful and soaring presence. These personifications infuse life and energy into the natural world, enhancing the poem’s imagery.
- Symbolism: Longfellow employs symbolism through the broken oar. The oar represents struggle and weariness, serving as a metaphor for the hardships encountered in life. The inscription carved on the oar, “Oft was I weary when I toiled at thee,” further reinforces this symbolism, highlighting the human experiences of fatigue and perseverance.
- Alliteration: The poet employs alliteration, using the repetition of consonant sounds, to enhance the musicality of the poem. Examples include “billows rolled and plunged” and “flashed the red sunset,” creating a rhythmic quality and adding emphasis to the words and images.
- Irony: Longfellow also utilizes irony in the concluding lines of the poem. The poet, who has been seeking a final word, ultimately decides to throw his pen into the sea. This ironic twist suggests that sometimes words are inadequate, and actions or silence can hold greater significance.
- Sonnet: The poem’s structure, employing a sonnet form, is another poetic technique employed by Longfellow. The structured and formal composition contributes to the poem’s coherence and aesthetic appeal, allowing for the precise conveyance of emotions and themes.
Once upon Iceland’s solitary strand
A poet wandered with his book and pen,
Seeking some final word, some sweet Amen,
Wherewith to close the volume in his hand.
The billows rolled and plunged upon the sand,
In the opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Broken Oar,’ the poet sets the stage and introduces the central character, a wandering poet. The phrase “Once upon Iceland’s solitary strand” creates a sense of isolation and sets the scene in a specific location, implying a remote and desolate coastline.
The poet is described as wandering with his book and pen, emphasizing his purposeful journey and his commitment to his craft. This imagery of the poet carrying his tools of expression suggests a quest for something significant, an elusive final word or conclusion. The poet is in search of closure, indicated by the desire for “some final word, some sweet Amen.” This yearning for a satisfying ending reveals a longing for resolution and completeness in his work.
The choice of words like “seeking” and “wherewith” portrays the poet’s active pursuit and his quest for that perfect closing sentiment. He is not passively waiting for inspiration but actively engaging in the creative process. The poet’s goal is to find the ideal word or phrase that will provide a sense of fulfillment and closure, allowing him to conclude the volume in his hand.
Meanwhile, the billows, or waves, are described as rolling and plunging upon the sand. This depiction of the tumultuous sea creates a contrasting image to the poet’s inward contemplation. The dynamic movement of the billows suggests the ever-present force of nature, emphasizing the vastness and power of the external world beyond the poet’s introspection. It also hints at the unpredictable nature of creativity and the potential for the unexpected to influence the poet’s quest for resolution.
In these opening lines, Longfellow introduces the themes of solitude, the artist’s search for closure, and the juxtaposition between the poet’s internal world and the powerful forces of nature. The reader is drawn into the poet’s journey, setting the stage for the subsequent events and themes explored in the rest of the poem.
The circling sea-gulls swept beyond his ken,
And from the parting cloud-rack now and then
Flashed the red sunset over sea and land.
Then by the billows at his feet was tossed
A broken oar; and carved thereon he read,
In lines 6-10 of Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Broken Oar,” the poet further develops the themes of nature’s presence and the poet’s contemplation by incorporating vivid imagery and symbolism.
The poet observes the circling seagulls, which sweep beyond his ken or beyond his range of vision. This image suggests a sense of freedom and expansiveness as the seagulls navigate the vast expanse of the sky. The circling motion of the seagulls also conveys a sense of continuity and cyclical nature, mirroring the poet’s ongoing search for resolution and closure.
Longfellow then introduces the image of the red sunset, which flashes from the parting cloud rack over the sea and land. This vivid description evokes a striking visual contrast, with the vibrant red hues piercing through the parting clouds. The red sunset signifies a moment of intensity and beauty, contrasting with the solitude and introspection of the poet.
Next, the poet’s attention is captured by a broken oar that is tossed by the billows at his feet. This broken oar becomes a crucial symbol in the poem, representing weariness and struggle. Carved onto the oar is an inscription that the poet reads. The carving on the oar states, “Oft was I weary, when I toiled at thee.” This inscription reinforces the theme of weariness and serves as a poignant reminder of the challenges faced by the previous owner of the oar.
Through powerful visual imagery and symbolic language, Longfellow highlights the interplay between the natural world and the poet’s internal journey. The circling sea gulls and the red sunset convey a sense of wonder and transcendence, while the broken oar and its inscription underscore the theme of weariness and perseverance.
These lines deepen the poem’s exploration of the human experience, drawing attention to the poet’s contemplative state and the profound insights he derives from the external world.
“Oft was I weary, when I toiled at thee”;
And like a man, who findeth what was lost,
He wrote the words, then lifted up his head,
And flung his useless pen into the sea.
In the final lines of Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘The Broken Oar,’ the poet reaches a transformative moment and conveys a profound message about weariness, self-discovery, and the limitations of language.
The inscription on the broken oar, “Oft was I weary, when I toiled at thee,” reveals the struggles and fatigue experienced by its previous owner. These words resonate with the poet, who recognizes the shared human experience of weariness and toil. The repetition of the word “weary” emphasizes the emotional and physical exhaustion that can accompany one’s endeavors.
Drawing inspiration from the inscription, the poet takes action. Longfellow employs a simile to describe the poet’s response, comparing him to a man who has found something lost. This comparison conveys a sense of joy, relief, and revelation. The poet’s discovery of this connection between his own weariness and the weariness of the oar’s previous owner sparks a transformative moment of self-awareness.
In response to this realization, the poet writes the words from the inscription. This act of writing serves as a cathartic release, a tangible expression of the poet’s understanding and connection to the weary soul who once relied on the broken oar. It symbolizes the poet’s acceptance of the challenges and struggles inherent in the human experience.
Following this act of writing, the poet lifts his head, indicating a moment of clarity and enlightenment. This action represents a shift in perspective as the poet raises his gaze from the physical object of the broken oar to the broader understanding of his own journey and the limitations of language.
Finally, the poet flings his useless pen into the sea. This act carries profound symbolism, suggesting a recognition of the limitations of words in capturing the depth of human experience. By discarding his pen, the poet embraces the idea that some experiences and emotions transcend language and can only be felt and understood through actions or silence.
In these concluding lines, Longfellow’s poem conveys a powerful message about weariness, self-discovery, and the acceptance of the limitations of language. The poet’s journey from weariness to revelation culminates in the act of letting go, symbolizing a deeper understanding of the human experience and the profound mysteries of life.
The speaker in the poem is an unnamed poet who embarks on a contemplative journey, seeking a final word to conclude his writing and finding resonance in the broken oar and its inscription.
The tone of ‘The Broken Oar’ is introspective and reflective, as the speaker delves into themes of weariness, self-discovery, and the limitations of language. There is also a sense of awe and reverence toward the natural world.
The poem is titled ‘The Broken Oar’ because the broken oar serves as a symbolic object that represents weariness and struggle. It catalyzes the poet’s self-reflection and understanding of the shared human experience.
The poem elicits a range of feelings, including contemplation, empathy, and a sense of connection to the universal struggles and search for resolution depicted in the poem. It may evoke a sense of introspection and a recognition of the complexities of the human journey.
The mood of the poem is a blend of introspection, melancholy, and a touch of hope. The contemplative tone, coupled with the themes of weariness and the limitations of language, creates a somber and reflective atmosphere. However, the act of discarding the pen and the poet’s self-discovery hint at a glimmer of hope and acceptance.
Those of you who enjoyed this poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow may like to explore his following other poems:
- ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ – is a narrative poem about a shipwreck and the dangers of pride in an emergency.
- ‘Hiawatha’s Childhood’ – describes how the protagonist of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ grew up and learned about his surroundings. It also focuses on the life of his grandmother.
- In ‘A Day of Sunshine’ – the poet uses imagery to celebrate nature. It reminds the reader to take advantage of these special moments when they come.