The Builders by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

‘The Builders’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describes how a nation is built from the contributions of each and every individual of the country. The people from both the past and present collectively work for a nation’s advancement.

‘The Builders’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a nine stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a consistent and structured rhyming pattern of abab, alternating as the poet saw fit throughout the entire piece. Additionally, the poet has chosen to format each line of the poem with seven syllables. This adds to the consistency developed through the pattern of rhyme. 

A reader should also take note of the use of indention in The Builders.’ Longfellow chose to utilize this visual technique to add an additional element of interest to the verses when seen on a page. It also forces a reader to move back and forth with the text, stimulating further engagement.

The Builders by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

Summary of The Builders 

‘The Builders’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow describes a speaker’s view on the contributions, large and small, made to the history of the human race. 

Th poem begins with the speaker stating that all people, no matter who they are, have contributed to the history and “walls of time.” No one’s deeds are useless, valueless, or going unnoticed. He makes sure the reader is aware that the small “deeds” supplement the “massive.” One cannot exist without the other. 

Throughout the text, he speaks on the importance of maintaining a constructive relationship with history. The speaker believes that any listening to, or reading this poem should focus on the structures they are building. Without a strong base one’s life will come unhinged and one will be unable to reach the turrets at the end of life. It is from here one can see across the expanse of the earth and find true understanding. 

Discover more Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems.

Analysis of The Builders 

Stanza One 

All are architects of Fate,

Working in these walls of Time;

Some with massive deeds and great,

Some with ornaments of rhyme.

In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by stating that all people, no matter who they are or where they come from, are “architects of Fate.” When he refers to “All,” he is truly speaking of everyone who has ever lived.

The speaker has a very optimistic view of the world. He sees all inhabitants of earth as having contributed to the “walls of Time.” Every person has an impact of one size or another. Some were simply “ornaments” while others were “massive deeds.” 

Stanza Two 

Nothing useless is, or low;

Each thing in its place is best;

And what seems but idle show

Strengthens and supports the rest.

In the second stanza the speaker emphasizes his position on the importance of human contributions by stating that “Nothing” one does is “useless” or “low.” All things have their “place” where they belong. No matter what one person might think of another, their contributions do matter.

He is a firm believer that even when something seems to be valueless or “but idle show,” it really has a deeper impact. The speaker is describing the butterfly effect in which even the smallest act changes or “supports the rest.” Deeds which are considered “massive” only have the impact they do because of the smaller actions. 

Stanza Three 

For the structure that we raise,

Time is with materials filled;

Our to-days and yesterdays

Are the blocks with which we build.

In the third quatrain of this piece begins by saying that the “structure” made by human beings is slowly being filled over the years. It is growing larger and larger and becoming “filled” with the “materials” humankind has contributed to history. 

The story of the earth is made up of “Our to-days and yesterdays.” There are the memories “we” use to “build” the past and future. These memories are not defined in the poem to any extent. They are made of absolutely every experience one can have or create while they are alive. 

Stanza Four 

Truly shape and fashion these;

Leave no yawning gaps between;

Think not, because no man sees,

Such things will remain unseen.

The fourth stanza describes the process of “building” up “Time” and crafting the future. Due to the fact that there are so many contributors to this process there cannot be any “yawning gaps between” or within history. It should be, the speaker says, “Truly shape[d] and fashion[ed].” 

Although all inhabitants of the planet has participated in this act, no single person sees the whole picture. An overarching image of eternity is not for “man” to see, it is something to which God is only privy.

Stanza Five

In the elder days of Art,

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part;

For the Gods see everywhere.

The fifth stanza is the turning point of this piece in which the speaker looks back to a time before modernity. It was in the “elder days” of the past that “Builders wrought” or crafted, “Art.” They were devoted to their task and went about it with the “greatest care.” 

Their lives were clearly dedicated to their constructions and although they could not understand the impact they were having “the Gods” are able to “see everywhere” and know how the world is evolving. 

Stanza Six 

Let us do our work as well,

Both the unseen and the seen;

Make the house, where Gods may dwell,

Beautiful, entire, and clean.

The speaker turns back to his intended listeners at this point asking that everyone does their “work as well,” whether that be work which is “unseen” or “seen.” It is important to work on the ”house, where Gods may dwell.” 

The world should not fall into physical or moral disrepair. It must remain “Beautiful, entire and clean” without broken systems or time wasted on judgements of others.

Stanza Seven 

Else our lives are incomplete,

Standing in these walls of Time,

Broken stairways, where the feet

Stumble as they seek to climb.

It is clear the speaker puts the utmost importance on various kinds of work and the impact they have on the progress of humankind. He believes that without the “walls of time” the lives of humanity are “incomplete.” 

One must have access to a strong and varied history and the drive to develop it further. Otherwise the world will be like a “Broken stairway.” It will not function as it was meant to and people will “Stumble” as they attempt to “climb” into understanding—whether that is of God or just life itself. 

Stanza Eight 

Build to-day, then, strong and sure,

With a firm and ample base;

And ascending and secure

Shall to-morrow find its place.

In the second to last section of the poem the speaker reiterates to his listeners that everyday one should work on building a “strong and sure…ample base.” One’s life is built on this structure and with its integrity it will support one’s “ascending…to-morrow.” It will allow one to move beyond their basic life into a realm that is closer to God. One’s being will be improved as they work on their contributions to “Time.” 

Stanza Nine 

Thus alone can we attain

To those turrets, where the eye

Sees the world as one vast plain,

And one boundless reach of sky.

In the final stanza the speaker describes how only through the construction of a strong life-base will one be able to “attain  / …those turrets.” It is here, in this castle-like structure where one will be able to see “the world as one vast plain.” True understanding, through God, is delivered at this point. 

One will have a “boundless reach of sky” to look out over and a clear view of one’s own life, the meaning of existence and the history of humankind.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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