The Windmill by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — often shortened simply to H.W. Longfellow — was well-known during his lifetime for poems that were both lyrical and legendary in content; his work, The Windmill, is an interesting example of a poem that is almost both things. The emotional and personal story told in the poem is told through the perspective of an inanimate object, and the mythology of the poem is one of Longfellow’s own appropriation. Each aspect of the poem is centred around its titular image, and so its primary purpose appears to be to propose a different perspective on a seemingly simple lifestyle. Longfellow published The Windmill in his 1880 collection Ultima Thule (a phrase which literally translates into “highest point” and refers to going beyond the boundaries of known borders), his second-to-last publication before he passed away in 1882.


The Windmill Analysis

Behold! a giant am I!

Aloft here in my tower,

With my granite jaws I devour

The maize, and the wheat, and the rye,

And grind them into flour. 

From the first verse, it is clear that the primary focus of The Windmill is going to be the personification of the title object. Keeping in mind that this poem was likely written in the late 1870s, it makes sense to think that a windmill would stand among the most dominant objects on any landscape, and this dominance is given to the windmill as a personality. Use of words such as “giant,” “jaws,” and “devour” create an almost terrifying image, which is immediately juxtaposed with the final two lines, which make it clear that the giant is a windmill creating flour for a farmer. The parallel here is likely meant to be comedic, or at the very least lighthearted, as might be expected from a poem about a sentient windmill.

I look down over the farms;

In the fields of grain I see

The harvest that is to be,

And I fling to the air my arms,

For I know it is all for me. 

The second verse plays on the dominating personality explored initially by suggesting that the windmill — which this verse reminds the reader is taller than everything else — sees the fields that surround it as its own territory. The simplicity and shameless writing, particularly in the final line (“I know it is all for me”) almost implies sovereignty, which is an idea that is both amusing and startlingly true. The windmill looks forward to the coming harvest and flings its arms to the air, another personification, likely referencing the blades, or sails, of the mill. Notably, in this verse, there is no particularly dominant language, despite the aforementioned implications. Knowing that the subject of the poem is an inanimate object that has been personified adds a very lighthearted atmosphere to the work, and gives Longfellow a bit more freedom with his choice of words and poetic devices.

I hear the sound of flails

Far off, from the threshing-floors

In barns, with their open doors,

And the wind, the wind in my sails,

Louder and louder roars. 

The lightness of The Windmill is a concept that is deeply ingrained within the poem itself, and so even the battle-cry-like topic of its third verse cannot deter its inherent cheerfulness. In this verse, the windmill hears the sound of flails, which is a bit of a tough metaphor to decipher initially. “Flail” is a word that comes from the medieval word for whip, and refers to a weapon consisting of a metal ball held onto a thick stick by a chain. A flail doesn’t really make any noise until it hits something, but it depends on the wind to pick up momentum and power — the “sound” of a flail, is the sound of a heavy ball whipping through the whistling wind. With this in mind, it is likely that Longfellow is suggesting that there is a fierce wind approaching the mill, throwing open barn doors, and heading for the windmill with increasing velocity (indicated by the increase in volume). The reference to sails is one of few literal descriptions in the poem — windmills are powered by cloth sails that affect how much wind is converted into how much power.

I stand here in my place,

With my foot on the rock below,

And whichever way it may blow,

I meet it face to face,

As a brave man meets his foe. 

For the most part, the fourth verse continues the mounting anticipation created by its preceding verse. The windmill resolves to stand its ground and think of itself as a brave warrior, stepping into combat. Of course, this is an almost silly claim to make considering the poem’s topic — windmills are, after all, designed to withstand heavy winds and to use them to fulfill their purposes.

And while we wrestle and strive,

My master, the miller, stands

And feeds me with his hands;

For he knows who makes him thrive,

Who makes him lord of lands. 

The fifth verse of The Windmill depicts the windmill’s battle against the wind, and continues to comically explore its odd perspective on events. Because the windmill is looking forward to the harvests to convert grains into flower, it is reasonable to think it was built by a farmer for the purposes of feeding him, either directly through the flour itself, or indirectly, because that farmer sells it to make a living. From the windmill’s perspective, however, the miller who operates its tiller is the one doing the feeding, as thanks for that service, as though the windmill is the lord of lords in this scenario. The descriptions at the end of the verse make it clear that the miller is a wealthy and influential figure, and the windmill is quick to point out that it is its own influence that has given the miller his life in that manner.

On Sundays I take my rest;

Church-going bells begin

Their low, melodious din;

I cross my arms on my breast,

And all is peace within.

The final verse of The Windmill focuses on another amusing juxtaposition between the windmill’s reality and the miller’s. When it is Sunday, the miller goes to his church and observes the Christian tradition of Sunday rest. For the miller, this likely means a day of very hard work now transformed into a restful one — and the windmill sees things the same way, for a change. As religious observance is typically supposed to be a peaceful time, it is interesting that the windmill should be the one expressing peace and contentedness during its day of rest.

Throughout the poem, Longfellow’s windmill sometimes seems to be exactly like the people who live around it, and sometimes it feels like their exact opposite. The amusing juxtaposition that is The Windmill is one of H.W. Longfellow’s lighter works and more simple ideas — it is a pleasant poem to read and makes for rather amusing reflection after doing so.

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