The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

‘The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls’ is one of Longfellow’s most popular short poems. This piece, just like those that made him a household name during his lifetime, touches on subject matter that is relatable to all readers. The poem prominently explores themes of life and death. 

 

Summary of The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls

‘The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a moving poem that depicts life and death through the image of the seashore. 

The speaker describes through the use of refrains and repetition the movement of the tide. It rises and falls just as life flourishes and dies. Longfellow uses the symbol of a traveler walking on the seashore to represent all life and its inevitable rush towards death. 

 

Structure of The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a three-stanza poem that has a consistent rhyme scheme but no single pattern of rhyme. The lines follow the pattern of AABBA AACCA AADDA. The last line of each stanza is what is known as a refrain. The same exact phrase, “And the tide rises, the tide falls,” is repeated word for word. In regards to meter, things are more complicated. There is no specific pattern of meter, but there are examples of iambic tetrameter. 

This poem is an altered rondeau. This is a French form of poetry that is made up of a rhyming five-line stanza, or quintain, a four-line stanza (quatrain) and then a final sestet, or six-line stanza. These poems are noted for their repeated refrain at the end of each stanza. Unlike a rondeau, this poem does not contain the correct number of lines per stanza but it does end up with fifteen total lines at the end. 

 

Literary Devices in The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls

Longfellow makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls’. These include but are not limited to personification, alliteration, sibilance, and metaphor. The latter is the most important technique at work in this poem. It is seen through the poet’s use of the sea, the time of day, and the movements of the traveler to represent life and death. In the darkness of the night, death, the water wipes away the traveler’s footprints. His life is erased. 

Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, when the speaker describes the “white hands” of the water reaching out and “Effac[ing]” the traveler’s footprints. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “tide,” “tide,” and “twilight” in lines one and two. Sibilance is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. For example, “steeds,” “stalls,” and “Stamp” in the last stanza.

 

Analysis of The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls 

Stanza One 

The tide rises, the tide falls, 

The twilight darkens, the curlew calls; 

Along the sea-sands damp and brown 

The traveller hastens toward the town, 

And the tide rises, the tide falls. 

In the first stanza of ‘The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that is used as the refrain and as the title. It is a good example of caesura, the emphasis of which is all the more pronounced due to the uneven meter of the lines. Whenever this line appears a reader is confronted with the reversal of stressed and unstressed beats. 

The statement is simple and one that the speaker makes without any room for doubt. The same can be said for the second statement although the information being relayed is more detailed. This time the speaker draws the reader’s attention to the “curlew,” or a type of shorebird that would live by the rising and falling tide. Longfellow has already provided the reader with a good example of imagery. These two lines tap into multiple human senses at once. 

Someone is walking in the next lines along the edge of the water in the “sea-sands”. They are “damp and brown” and the traveler is moving quickly. He’s heading towards “town” quickly. The speaker’s destination and his intentions are unclear. The last line refrains the refrain. It is here at the end of each line the reader will encounter the refrain. The tide continues to rise and fall no matter what day it is, the events occurring in the wider world, or who is hurrying along the beach.

 

Stanza Two

Darkness settles on roofs and walls, 

But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls; 

The little waves, with their soft, white hands, 

Efface the footprints in the sands, 

And the tide rises, the tide falls. 

In the second stanza, the speaker brings in the darkness that was hinted at in the first stanza. Time is progressing and now it is full dark. There is a good example of personification in the second line when the poet describes the sea as “call[ing]” in the darkness. This is a mysterious and haunting image made more so by the repetition of “the sea”. The sound that it’s making, it’s “calls,” could refer to the splashing of water on the shore. 

Personification is used again in the next lines as he describes the waves and how they reach out, seemingly with hands, to grasp at the “footprints in the sand”. This very unusual and evocative image clearly relates to this poem and the movement of the sea to the passage of time. The “hands” of the waves, an image representing the foam, wipe away the “footprints”. It erases the presence of any who walk along the shore.

 

Stanza Three 

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls 

Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls; 

The day returns, but nevermore 

Returns the traveller to the shore, 

And the tide rises, the tide falls. 

In the final stanza of ‘The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls’ the speaker lifts the darkness of the night, a symbol for death, and brings in the “morning”. It breaks through the darkness in the form of horses, steeds in their stalls. It is impatient for its rise through the sky. The horses “Stamp and neigh” and the “hostler,” or someone who is employed to look after horses, is calling to them. There is still life in amongst this landscape that was so recently filled with darkness. 

Just as the tide rises and sets the darkness returns to the shore but the traveler does not. He has been taken by death, his footprints erased from the shore. 

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