The Chamber Over the Gate by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Chamber Over the Gate, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is a poem filled with emotion, faith, and history. Longfellow wrote the piece about a father who had lost his son, in a way that only a father could, and informs his story with a powerful and biblical source.


The Chamber Over The Gate Analysis

Is it so far from thee

Thou canst no longer see,

In the Chamber over the Gate,

That old man desolate,

Weeping and wailing sore

For his son, who is no more?

O Absalom, my son! 

Is it so long ago

That cry of human woe

From the walled city came,

Calling on his dear name,

That it has died away

In the distance of to-day?

O Absalom, my son! 

The Chamber Over the Gate uses lengthy verses with shortened lines to create a rapid pace for the piece. Each verse rhymes in an AABBCCD pattern. The “D” line, concluding each verse, is always “O Absalom, my son!” — this repetition plays an important role in establishing the theme of loss that is present throughout the piece. The first two verses are, with the exception of that final line, questions, posed by the narrator to an unknown other party, each of which suggest that someone has turned away from or forgotten about the suffering of another. In the first verse, he is described as being a desolate old man who’s son, Absalom, has recently died. The second verse makes it clear that this loss happened at some point in the past, as the speaker is seeing that others are moving on from the death, and they believe it to be too soon to do so.

There is no far or near,

There is neither there nor here,

There is neither soon nor late,

In that Chamber over the Gate,

Nor any long ago

To that cry of human woe,

O Absalom, my son! 

From the ages that are past

The voice sounds like a blast,

Over seas that wreck and drown,

Over tumult of traffic and town;

And from ages yet to be

Come the echoes back to me,

O Absalom, my son! 

In the third and fourth verses of The Chamber Over the Gate, the unknown speaker continues to reflect on the nature of the father’s grief in the titular chamber. The third verse describes grief as being a timeless emotion — that when a father has lost his son, there is nothing in his world except for that loss. To the grieving father, the chamber, the past, the present, the future all do not exist. More so than that, in the fourth verse, the grief is described as being so powerful that it resonates throughout the entire town. Longfellow uses metaphors and harsh natural imagery here to convey that resounding pain. Tumultuous seas and aural blasts are powerful metaphors here, because they convey chaos and are used with negative connotation.

Somewhere at every hour

The watchman on the tower

Looks forth, and sees the fleet

Approach of the hurrying feet

Of messengers, that bear

The tidings of despair.

O Absalom, my son! 

He goes forth from the door

Who shall return no more.

With him our joy departs;

The light goes out in our hearts;

In the Chamber over the Gate

We sit disconsolate.

O Absalom, my son! 

The next two verses of The Chamber Over the Gate discuss the resounding memory of the tragedy. The speaker notes that there are guards who continue to relive the day they brought the father the news of Absalom’s passing. The speaker reflects on the way the grief at Absalom’s passing has influenced so many different aspects of city life, so much so that they no longer see joy in the city, and feels as though the entire city is in the Chamber over the Gate, mourning his loss with his father.

That ‘t is a common grief

Bringeth but slight relief;

Ours is the bitterest loss,

Ours is the heaviest cross;

And forever the cry will be

‘Would God I had died for thee,

O Absalom, my son!’ 

There is a theme throughout The Chamber Over the Gate concerning the shared nature of grief and loss. The speaker of the poem is clearly not the father of Absalom, but is still deeply touched by his passing, and sees the whole city as being darker for it. The final verse of the poem also instills a religious aspect to the piece, where the reader hears the father wishing, for the rest of his life, that he had been the one to die, rather than his son. This is also a biblical reference that indicates that Longfellow is taking inspiration for The Chamber Over the Gate from the Abrahamic faith specifically from the Book of Samuel.


Historical Context

The story of Absalom and his father David is recorded in the Second Book of Samuel, in the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian Old Testament. David was the second King of Israel, and his sons enjoyed positions of influence and power in Jerusalem during his reign. According to the biblical account, Absalom lived with his family until he ordered his servants to kill his half-brother, Amnon, while he was drunk at a feast Absalom had orchestrated, as vengeance for having assaulted his sister two years prior. After the murder, he fled the city, and returned only three years later, on an invitation from his father.

From here, Absalom began attempting to undermine the king at every opportunity. Whenever possible, he would take petitioners for his father and explain to them that there was no appointed official who could hear their complaints, even though those petitions were valid. He would wish aloud to these people that he was the king instead of his father, so that he could hear their pleas and do something about them. After four years, he felt confident enough to declare himself king, and his father fled the city in response. David escaped, thanks to an informer who prevented Absalom from chasing him down, and bought David the time to prepare an army to win back his rightful place.

David eventually raised an army, and fought his son at the Battle of Ephraim’s Wood, where his general killed Absalom and broke his army. When his soldiers brought news of his son’s passing, David famously cried, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33).

In The Chamber Over the Gate, Longfellow focuses on the grief David feels for Absalom, and the way that grief resounds throughout Jerusalem. The biblical account that informs the poem, however, tells the story of a son who fought against his father in every way, by slaying another of his sons, and by usurping his throne. And yet, at the end of it all, David feels nothing but remorse and grief for his fallen son, and never stops being the man’s father, even in the wake of his betrayals. This incredible love that a father can feel for his son is at the heart of Longfellow’s work, and the message resounds as surely as David’s grief did throughout the city of Jerusalem.

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