Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Meeting is a poem that reflects upon the nature of aging and of memory both. He uses the piece as a means of discussing a number of important ideas and morals while telling a story that many of his readers undoubtedly found relatable as they made their journey through life. In many ways, poems like The Meeting were a very typical style of Longfellow’s, but his unique approach to the work helps it to stand out from its contemporaries.
The Meeting Analysis
First and Second Stanza
After so long an absence
At last we meet again:
Does the meeting give us pleasure,
Or does it give us pain? –
The tree of life has been shaken,
And but few of us linger now,
Like the prophets two or three berries
In the top of the uppermost bough.
Immediately, The Meeting attempts to invoke a feeling of nostalgia by establishing straight away that a lot of time has passed between the present and some event in the past. How much time is neither specified nor is it important; the reflective tone of the piece is something that Longfellow is very quick to establish. The speaker who is narrating the piece is one of two (or another small number) of people who have not seen each other in some time, and wonders whether they are happy or pained to see each other again. Immediately, this seems strange — what could cause pain that has to do with seeing an old friend? This one question introduces the poem, with the only other notable element of the first verse being its style. The seven-syllable count for the first, second, and fourth line means that each one ends on an odd-numbered syllable, which serves as an aural transition into the following line; there is a tangible beat to this piece, a sort of lyrical quality that enhances the idea of nostalgia and reflection Longfellow is trying to convey.
The second verse answers the question posed by the first verse: the reason the meeting may cause the friends pain is that they once belonged to a larger group of people who have passed away over the years. When they meet now, they feel the pleasure of seeing old friends coupled with the pain of the knowledge that the group is not complete. Longfellow’s use of the word “linger” to describe the speaker’s state of being suggests that they are fairly old, at an age where friends do sadly begin passing away. The metaphor of being like berries at the top of a tree, coupled with the tree of life image from earlier, suggests that their friends are “dropping” like berries from a tree, and that they are the only ones left, the ones supported at the very top, the only members of the group who remain alive.
Third and Fourth Stanza
We cordially greet each other
In the old, familiar tone;
And we think, though we do not say it,
How old and gray he is grown!
We speak of a Merry Christmas
And many a Happy New Year;
But each in his heart is thinking
Of those that are not here.
In many ways, the meanings of the third and fourth verses parallel the meanings of the first and second. The third verse describes the two men, and the way they greet each other: warm and friendly, as if they last saw each other much more recently than they have. In their heads, however, the two friends are noticing the wear of the ages on each other — each one has grown noticeably older, and this is what stands out most to them, undoubtedly because it highlights their own age, which the other is considering at the same time. This reflects the pleasure and pain aspect of the meeting of the two friends that the narrator ponders in the first verse. Likewise, the fourth verse sees the two friends discuss all of the important events in their lives, and while they discuss happy times, they cannot help but notice those who are not present more so than those who are. This is something that they noticed in the second verse as well, and Longfellow’s use of parallelism in The Meeting is intentionally highlighting the reflective nature of the piece and the strong feelings each friend has as they come together once more.
Fifth and Sixth Stanza
We speak of friends and their fortunes,
And of what they did and said,
Till the dead alone seem living,
And the living alone seem dead.
And at last we hardly distinguish
Between the ghosts and the guests;
And a mist and shadow of sadness
Steals over our merriest jests.
The fifth and sixth verses highlight an interesting theme in The Meeting that Longfellow discusses without really mentioning. The more the friends discuss their lives, they come to talk about their friends, the ones who have passed away since their last meeting. Eventually, old friends becomes the sole topic for discussion, resulting in the complete abolishment of their happy reunion, making them feel old and alone, while their friends are immortalized in the stories of happier times. In direct contrast to the previous verses, their sadness becomes the forefront of their emotional state, while their happiness stays in their heads, and specifically in their memories. It is as though Longfellow is using The Meeting to warn his readers not to dwell too deeply in the past, because surely sadness and grief is not how meeting old friends is supposed to be.
In the fifth verse, the speaker describes that the dead seem more alive than the living. This is a great oxymoron, and only logical in the context of nostalgia and memories. By dwelling on only the happiest memories from their past, these men are incapable of being happy in the present, which is something they should always aspire to be. The poem ends on this rather somber note, with the men absorbed not by the friends that are physically closest to them, but rather focused entirely on a time that can never be relived, on memories that can never be reclaimed, and on people they will never see again. While their grief is certainly understandable, their choice to focus on what they no longer have, rather than what they do have, is, in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s work, a dangerous descent into unhappiness and gloom during a time that should instead be joyous.