The poem is a great example of Longfellow’s simplest verse. It is easy to read and contains a number of images that readers from all walks of life can relate to, two of the attributes common to Fireside Poets. Longfellow asks the reader to visualize the images he presents in the fourteen lines of ‘The Harvest Moon’ and consider their meaning.
The Harvest Moon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes And roofs of villages, on woodland crests And their aerial neighborhoods of nests Deserted, on the curtained window-panes Of rooms where children sleep, on country lanes And harvest-fields, its mystic splendor rests! Gone are the birds that were our summer guests, With the last sheaves return the laboring wains! All things are symbols: the external shows Of Nature have their image in the mind, As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves; The song-birds leave us at the summer's close, Only the empty nests are left behind, And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.
Explore The Harvest Mooon
The poem presents readers with a series of images that are related to the fall season and what one might expect to see under the “harvest moon.” Through Longfellow’s use of language, it’s clear that the season is powerful and meaningful to his speaker. He celebrates the light of the moon and all that it reveals. The poem also suggests, towards the end of its fourteen lines, that the mind gives meaning to the various “external” symbols that nature presents.
Structure and Form
‘The Harvest Moon’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a fourteen-line sonnet that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABBAABBACDECDE. This is the most common form of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet.
Additionally, the poem is written in iambic pentameter. This means that the poet includes five sets of two beats in each line (for a total of ten syllables per line). The first syllable in each set is unstressed, and the second is stressed. For example, here is the first line with the stressed beats highlighted: “It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes.”
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes.”
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of lines. For example, “And” which begins lines two and three.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines four and five.
- Imagery: can be seen with the poet uses especially effective examples and descriptions. For example, “Only the empty nests are left behind, / And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.”
It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes
And roofs of villages, on woodland crests
And their aerial neighborhoods of nests
Deserted, on the curtained window-panes
In the first lines of the poem, Longfellow begins by declaring that it is “the Harvest Moon.” The line feels celebratory and excited. This tone continues in the following lines, where the poet uses two more examples of exclamation points. The exact time of year that he’s referring to in the opening line is in mid-to-late September.
As the lines progress, Longfellow’s speaker lists out various places that one can see the reflection of the harvest moon or an indication of this particular time of year. He speaks about the roofs of villages and the bird’s nests in the “aerial” part of “Woodland crests.” Specifically, he describes these “nests” as “Deserted.” This is another indication of the time of year. The young birds have flown away to start their own lives and the nesting season has yet to begin again.
The imagery continues, with Longfellow describing the way that the light of the harvest moon rests on window-panes. It touches everything, from the small natural wonders like bird’s nests to the human-made homes and objects that fill villages. Everyone, no matter where they come from, is underneath this particular moon. It is a unifying force that is worthy of celebration.
Of rooms where children sleep, on country lanes
And harvest-fields, its mystic splendor rests!
Gone are the birds that were our summer guests,
With the last sheaves return the laboring wains!
In the next quatrain, the speaker adds that the light of the moon touches “where children sleep, on country lanes / And harvest-fields.” Once again, the speaker emphasizes the universal way that all things are affected by the moon. The poet creates a very moving and specific atmosphere in these lines that is easy to imagine.
Just in case readers did not interpret the moon as he means it to be envisioned, the poet describes its light in line six as “mystic splendor.” There is something otherworldly and elevating about the light of this particular moon. It is a sign of the seasons changing and the world transforming, preparing for fall and then winter.
All things are symbols: the external shows
Of Nature have their image in the mind,
As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves;
The song-birds leave us at the summer’s close,
Only the empty nests are left behind,
And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.
The third and final quatrain of ‘The Harvest Moon’ marks a “turn” or “volta” in the poem. This refers to an important transition between one part and the next. It begins with the speaker noting that the disappearance of the birds, the light of the moon, and everything else he has referenced is a “symbol,” as are all other things.
By looking at the natural world and analyzing what one sees before them, they can understand nature in a deeper level. What nature shows on the outside can be felt and interpreted in the mind. Here, the poet may also be suggesting that the “shows” of nature are given their greatest meaning in the mind. It’s there that they are imbued with humanity’s chosen symbols.
This line is suggestive of the influence that the principles of the Transcendentalist movement had on Longfellow. Transcendentalism focused on the internal spirit and the importance of intuition as a source of knowledge. It is in nature, Transcendentalists believed, where one can receive the most pleasure and knowledge.
The falling of leaves, fruits, the movement of the birds, and the harvest moon all mean something to those who see them and take the time to appreciate them. The poem concludes on a memorable, although quite simple, image. The poet describes the songbirds leaving “us” as though it is a conscious choice on their part and leaving empty nests and piping quails “in the sheaves” (or bundles of grain) behind.
This important, and somewhat mournful image, is what readers are left with. But, it is not the only thing one should walk away with. The harvest moon and the empty nests mean that summer is over, fall is here, and that soon, all the life and beauty one appreciated during spring and summer is going to vanish.
The main themes are change and nature. The former is seen through the symbols human beings interpret in the natural world. Through the image of the harvest moonlight, the changing leaves, the empty nests, and more, people can interpret changes in the world around them and the transition into winter.
The speaker is unknown. They could be the poet himself, but their identity is not essential for one’s understanding of the poem’s meaning. They could be anyone who has an appreciation for the natural world and the willingness to take the time to note the various changes that present themselves during the month preceding winter.
The message is that if one can look at nature closely and take the time to understand its changes, then these changes become symbols, ones that are given meaning in the mind and are beautiful and moving to behold.
Longfellow likely wrote this poem in order to describe a particularly important time of year and bring forward a number of important and symbolic images that the “external shows” of nature present.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems. For example:
- ‘Song of the Owl’ – describes the hooting of the great black owl.
- ‘To the River Charles’ – is a meditation upon the river Charles, an 80-mile long river in eastern Massachusetts.
- ‘A Psalm of Life’ – a thoughtful poem about life’s struggles. The poet addresses the best way to confront these difficulties on an everyday basis.