The Castle-Builder by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Longfellow is that of innocence. Longfellow clearly had a joyful outlook on childhood, and thought very highly of that time of life. A great many of his poems attest to this, and The Castle-Builder stands tall among them. In it, he attempts to capture the spirit of childhood, and the exciting feeling of looking forward towards everything.

Longfellow initially published The Castle-Builder in his 1847 volume, Birds of Passage. The work itself was divided into five movements, or “flights,” referencing the titular poem and the migratory patterns of birds. The Castle-Builder was published in the Third Flight (a thematically curious choice, considering its childhood story and youthful theme).

 

The Castle-Builder Analysis

The Castle-Builder is written in a straightforward style, as a set of four quatrains, each rhyming in an ABAB style. Each line is also roughly ten syllables long. This style is likely intended to mirror the simplicity of childhood dreams, which is a clear focus of the work. The only exception to the style appears in the final verse, where the B rhyme is a rhyme of sight, rather than of actual pronunciation.

 

First Stanza

A gentle boy, with soft and silken locks,

A dreamy boy, with brown and tender eyes,

A castle-builder, with his wooden blocks,

And towers that touch imaginary skies. 

The first verse of The Castle-Builder introduces its titular concept by juxtaposing it against its essential opposite. While the boy being described in this verse is not a castle destroyer, he is definitely not an architect forming mighty structures, except in his own imagination. This verse is about a young child as he is, and the same young child as he appears in his wildest dreams. The physical descriptions used in the first two lines emphasize his youth and naïvety. In particular, his “tender eyes” is a description that suggests he has not seen very much hardship or stress, but still looks at the world with a gentle perspective. This reinforces the descriptions from the first verse as well — by describing the softness of the boy’s hair, Longfellow subtly suggests his gentle personality.

The second half of the verse describes the boy as a builder of imaginary castles, bringing the reader into the boy’s imagination, where he performs grand feats and creates works of wonder. In reality, of course, building a castle is a very difficult thing to do, but to the boy, the castle is simply there, and he knows that he built it himself, through the wooden blocks he has to play with, and through his own imagination, which is as innocent as his eyes, and is filled with such dreams as his very own castles and towers.

 

Second Stanza

A fearless rider on his father’s knee,

An eager listener unto stories told

At the Round Table of the nursery,

Of heroes and adventures manifold. 

The second verse demonstrates a similar pattern of blending reality with childhood fantasy. Unlike the first verse, this verse splits the reality and fantasy worlds within each line, bringing the two worlds much closer together. When the boy builds castles, he uses his imagination, but actually possesses wooden blocks in reality; likewise, here he takes what is real and uses it to fuel his dreams of adventure. He turns his nursery into a fortress with the Arthurian Round Table, and listens to exciting stories from his father’s knee, imagining that he is riding off to the adventures he is learning about. This idea of mixing fantasy and reality is one that could only work through the eyes of a child, where the distinctions are less real, and less important, than in adulthood. By writing this verse to incorporate two worlds so closely, Longfellow effectively describes the child’s perspective for the reader.

 

Third Stanza

There will be other towers for thee to build;

There will be other steeds for thee to ride;

There will be other legends, and all filled

With greater marvels and more glorified. 

The Castle-Builder makes one of its most important and central thematic points through the repetition displayed in the third verse. “There will be other,” Longfellow says, referring to castles, horses, and stories that mean so much to the child. The language in this verse takes on a somewhat romanticized, and certainly story-like tone, as the narrator begins referring to the child as “thee,” rather than “you.” This is definitely a conscious decision from Longfellow — “you” and “thee” take up the same amount of “space” in each line, and so one would not be preferred over the other except for meaning. It reinforces the fantastical nature of the child’s story, and feeds into his need for adventures. When the speaker repeatedly says “there will be other” adventures to embark on, the poem is acknowledging the perceived immortality of youth; the idea that childhood never ends, which seems so plausible when one is a child, and so absurd once they are not. The idea that there is always a new childhood adventure to embark on — that imagination is limitless and endlessly exciting — is a central part of being a child in the way that Longfellow depicts in The Castle-Builder.

 

Fourth Stanza

Build on, and make thy castles high and fair,

Rising and reaching upward to the skies;

Listen to voices in the upper air,

Nor lose thy simple faith in mysteries. 

In the final verse, the narrator for the poem emerges as something of an encouraging character for the boy, and tells him to keep building his castles, and to keep believing in his “simple faith.” The language used is encouraging and filled with positive connotation, indicating a strongly positive outlook on childhood. The speaker, presumably an adult (and presumably the voice of Longfellow as well), knows that eventually childhood ends, and that simple faith is replaced with questions and cynicism that doesn’t exist in youth. As such, the boy is encouraged to be a child, to hold onto that youthful innocence for as long as possible, because of the simply joy it brings children to be children. For Longfellow, this boundless imagination, this period of castle building and adventuring, is something to be cherished for as long as possible, because it is a simply joy that never truly comes back once lost — a lesson in perspective he undoubtedly felt was worth sharing to all.

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