To the River Charles by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

‘To the River Charles’ is a beautiful poem written by one of the famous poets of American literature, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. For many reasons, it was close to the poet’s heart.

This poem is a meditation upon the river Charles, an 80-mile long river in eastern Massachusetts. Charles River is also known in the Native-American language as “Quinobenquin” which means “meandering”. This meandering river, flowing slowly and silently near the poet’s mind’s eye, is dear to the poet for many reasons. Longfellow learned from the course of the river, the truth of life. The poem is as simple as the water of Charles and the poet’s simplicity while describing the beauty of the river is what makes this poem so dear to the readers.

To the River Charles by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Summary of To the River Charles

‘To the River Charles’ is a lyric poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about the Charles River and why it’s close to the poet’s heart.

Through this poem, Longfellow expresses his gratitude to the river Charles. The poet has spent four long years near the river. Alongside that, he learned many lessons from the generous river hence he wants to give him this song as a gift of gratitude. The river was always there for the poet and it makes his heart lighter all the time. Moreover, the Charles river reminds him of his three close friends. For these reasons, his spirit leans to it. And he composed this song out of respect and love for the river.



There are a total of 10 stanzas in the poem and each stanza consists of four rhyming lines. The lines of the poem rhyme alternatively. The rhyme scheme is ABAB. As an example, in the first stanza, “windest” rhymes with “findest” and “free” and “sea” rhyme together. Apart from that, the syllable pattern of each stanza is 8-7-8-7. The overall poem is composed in trochaic tetrameter. It means each line contains four trochees. There is only one variation throughout the poem. The lines having seven syllables are catalectic. It means the last foot of those lines contains only a stressed syllable. The metrical composition of the poem imitates the sound of the river and the falling rhythm depicts the course of Charles.


Literary Devices

Longfellow’s ‘To the River Charles’ begins with an apostrophe. The poet evokes the spirit of the river and uses personification to invest it with the ability to hear and feel. Thereafter, the poet uses a metaphor in “bosom of the sea” and compares it with a mother’s bosom. In the second stanza, the line “Half in rest, and half in strife” contains an antithesis. There is another metaphor in this stanza in the “stream of life.” One can find a simile in the line, “Overflowed me, like a tide.” In the line, “I have felt my heart beat lighter”, the poet uses synecdoche. There is a repetition of the word “celestial” in the sixth stanza, meant for the sake of emphasis. The poet also uses palilogy in the line, “Closer, closer to thy side.” Alongside that, in the last stanza, there is alliteration in the phrase, “generous giver”.


Analysis of To the River Charles

Stanza One

River! That in silence windest

  Through the meadows, bright and free,

Till at length thy rest thou findest

  In the bosom of the sea!

In Longfellow’s eulogy to the river Charles, readers come across an image of the river silently winding through the meadows in the first stanza. The river appears to the poet bright and free. The water of the river Charles is bright due to sunlight. Moreover, it symbolizes freedom and free-spirit. According to the poet, this free-spirit of the river finds rest in the “bosom of the sea.” Here, the sea seems to be the nourisher of the river. After its long journey through the meadows, it finds solace in the bosom of the sea like a child finds peace in her mother’s breast.


Stanza Two

Four long years of mingled feeling,

  Half in rest, and half in strife,

I have seen thy waters stealing

  Onward, like the stream of life.

Thereafter, Longfellow remarks he has spent “four long years” near the river. During his stay in Massachusetts, he had a mingled feeling in his heart. Half of the time he was at rest near the soothing river Charles and the rest of the time was spent in strife. It seems that the poet’s life imitated the course of the river. However, the poet has seen Charles’ waters stealing onward like the “stream of life.” Here, the word “stealing” means flowing silently. And, the metaphor, the “stream of life”, exemplifies the proximity between life and the river. Henceforth, according to the poet, the Charles River is a symbol of life.


Stanza Three

Thou hast taught me, Silent River!

   Many a lesson, deep and long;

Thou hast been a generous giver;

   I can give thee but a song.

The river Charles has taught him “Many a lesson, deep and long.” There is a paradox in the first line of the stanza. Firstly, the poet says the river has taught him, and just after that, he says the river is silent. So, the silence of the river taught him the lessons of life. Moreover, the lessons are “deep” and “long”. Hence, one has to be attentive and dedicated to learning those lessons as the poet does. Thereafter, Longfellow presents the reason for writing this poem in the last two lines of this stanza. He says as the river has been a “generous giver”, he tries to dedicate a song to it. Here, in “generous giver” the poet compares the river with a charitable person.


Stanza Four

Oft in sadness and in illness,

   I have watched thy current glide,

Till the beauty of its stillness

   Overflowed me, like a tide.

In the fourth stanza of ‘To the River Charles’, Longfellow says he has watched the river’s current glide often. The course of the river comforted him the most when he was sad or ill. He watched the river’s graceful flow till the beauty of its stillness overflowed him like a tide. Here, the poet affirms that there is also a beauty in stillness. In contrast to the conventional symbol of mobility, here the river’s apparent immobility touches the poet’s soul. Lastly, through the simile, the poet compares the still beauty of the river to the tides of the sea. Both can overflow a person with water.


Stanza Five

And in better hours and brighter,

   When I saw thy waters gleam,

I have felt my heart beat lighter,

   And leap onward with thy stream.

Thereafter, the poet says when he was in “better” and “brighter” hours of his life, he says the water of river Charles gleaming under sunlight. In this way, the poet creates a contrast between the third stanza and the fourth stanza. When he looked at the gleaming water of the river, his heartbeat became lighter and his heart leaped onward like the stream. So, the river soothed the poet’s soul not only in difficult times but also in the happy and bright moments of life. It seems that the river awakened the child resting inside the poet’s heart.


Stanza Six

Not for this alone I love thee,

   Nor because thy waves of blue

From celestial seas above thee

   Take their own celestial hue.

In this stanza of ‘To the River Charles’, the poet negates what he has said in the previous stanzas. According to him, he loves the river, not for those reasons alone. He doesn’t even adore it for its blue waves. One can understand from the consecutive negations that the poet tries to say just the opposite. This technique is called a litote. Whatsoever, the poet thinks the “celestial seas” or the sky above the river takes its “celestial hue” (a reference to the blue color of the sky) from the river itself. So, the river appears to be the creator of the universe. Like God, it paints the landscape in a way that appears to it as best.


Stanza Seven

Where yon shadowy woodlands hide thee,

   And thy waters disappear,

Friends I love have dwelt beside thee,

   And have made thy margin dear.

Thereafter, Longfellow refers to the place where the shadowy woodlands hide the river. In the shadow of the woodlands, the river’s water also disappears. It disappears from the outer world but it’s still there, flowing in its easy pace toward her mother-sea. However, at that place, some of his friends dwelt beside the river. He also spent some happy moments with his friends near the river’s bank or “margin”. Hence, the river reminds him of those past moments, and in this way, it becomes dearer to him.


Stanza Eight

More than this;—thy name reminds me

   Of three friends, all true and tried;

And that name, like magic, binds me

   Closer, closer to thy side.

In the eighth stanza of ‘To the River Charles’, the poet says more than those moments, the river reminds him of three friends. They were all true to the poet. At moments, when he needed them the most, they were there. Moreover, the poet says the river’s name, Charles binds him closer to its side. Here, the poet uses a simile to compare the name of the river to a magical spell. It can spellbind the poet with its magical name. In the last line, there is a repetition of the word “closer”. He emphasizes this word for illustrating how close he is to the river.


Stanza Nine

Friends my soul with joy remembers!

   How like quivering flames they start,

When I fan the living embers

   On the hearthstone of my heart!

Longfellow remembers those three friends with joy. The use of exclamation makes it clear that the poet becomes extremely happy just by thinking about them. Thereafter, he uses a metaphor for memories in “quivering flames”. He remembers the trembling memories of his friends and it keeps the “hearthstone” of his heart bright and warm. Here, the poet uses another metaphor in “living embers”. Longfellow compares the memories of his friends to the embers. By thinking about them, he fans the living embers kept on the “hearthstone” of his heart. The recapitulation provides warmth and comfort to his soul.


Stanza Ten

‘Tis for this, thou Silent River!

   That my spirit leans to thee;

Thou hast been a generous giver,

   Take this idle song from me.

In the last stanza of ‘To the River Charles’, Longfellow again evokes the spirit of the “Silent River’ and says that for these reasons mentioned above he expresses his gratitude to it. His spirit leans to the river out of reverence and adorations. It seems the river is like God and the poet is the cherisher of the river’s magnanimity. The river Charles has been a generous giver throughout his life. For this reason, he requests the river to take this “idle song” composed by the poet. The song is “idle” as the poet knows it can’t match the pace of the graceful river. He tries to be humble in front of the river for his respect and love for it.


Historical Context

In this poem, Longfellow, one of the best 19th century American poets, refers to the river Charles that flows in eastern Massachusetts. The river originates from Hopkinton. Thereafter, it takes a meandering route and travels through 23 cities and towns before reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Boston. The poet spent his early life in Portland, Maine, then a district of Massachusetts. Hence, the river was close to the poet’s heart. Moreover, there is a reference to three of his friends in this poem. It seems that the poet refers to his lifelong friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his first wife and childhood friend, Mary Storer Potter in this poem.


Similar Poetry

Like ‘To the River Charles’ by Longfellow, the following poems similarly talk about rivers and their serene beauty.

You can read about 15 of the Best Poems about Rivers and Streams and 10 of the Best Nature Poems here.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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