The Garlands upon his grave
And flowers upon his hearse,
And to the tender heart and brave
The tribute of this verse.
His was the troubled life,
The conflict and the pain,
The grief, the bitterness of strife,
The honor without stain.
Like Winkelried, he took
Into his manly breast
The sheaf of hostile spears, and broke
A path for the oppressed.
Then from the fatal field
Upon a nation’s heart
Borne like a warrior on his shield!–
So should the brave depart.
Death takes us by surprise,
And stays our hurrying feet;
The great design unfinished lies,
Our lives are incomplete.
But in the dark unknown
Perfect their circles seem,
Even as a bridge’s arch of stone
Is rounded in the stream.
Alike are life and death,
When life in death survives,
And the uninterrupted breath
Inspires a thousand lives.
Were a star quenched on high,
For ages would its light,
Still travelling downward from the sky,
Shine on our mortal sight.
So when a great man dies,
For years beyond our ken,
The light he leaves behind him lies
Upon the paths of men.
Published in 1875 in the collection Masque of Pandora and Other Poems, this thirty-six line poem is a tribute to Longfellow’s close friend, Charles Sumner.
Sumner, who served as Senator for the state of Massachusetts in the years prior to and during the Civil War, was known for his strong abolitionist positions. He remains best-known, perhaps, for being caned on the Senate floor by Representative Preston Brooks just days after he delivered his anti-slavery speech titled “A Crime Against Kansas.” The friendship between Sumner and Longfellow, by all accounts, was both strong and long-lasting. Longfellow, whose abolitionist views were reflected in several of his published works of poetry, found in Sumner a like-minded friend and confidant.
Written in four-line stanzas in an ABAB rhyme scheme, “Charles Sumner” begins by acknowledging in the opening stanza that the poem is a tribute to its namesake: “And to the tender heart and brave / The tribute of this verse.” Longfellow recognizes specifically the hardships that Sumner faced in his opposition to slavery. “Like Winkelreid, he took / Into his manly breast / The sheaf of hostile spears, and broke / A path for the oppressed.” Longfellow alludes to Arnold von Winkelried, a hero in Swiss legends of the Middle Ages, who is believed to have turned the tide of a battle against the Austrians in the favor of the Swiss by breaching enemy lines and taking the fire of enemy spears, allowing the Swiss to advance. The comparison suggests that Longfellow believes that Sumner acted in his abolitionist quest, taking the blows—quite literally—of his opponents in the name of justice and freedom for those enslaved.
The tribute ends with Longfellow affirming Sumner’s lasting legacy: “So when a great man dies, / … The light he leaves behind him lies / Upon the paths of men” (33, 35-36). A fitting ending, indeed, for a poem written in memory of an individual who left not only his marks on Longfellow personally, but also in a much larger sense the political and social landscapes of the United States.
Bibliography and Further Readings Frederick J. Blue, “The Poet and the Reformer: Longfellow, Sumner, and the Bonds of Male Friendship, 1837-1874,” Journal of the Early Republic, 15.2 (1995); “Charles Sumner.”Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: A Maine Historical Society Website; “Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters.” National Park Service, 12 Jan. 2018; “Winkelried, Arnold Von.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (2012).
Credits Composed by Nicholas Yialiades, Fall 2018. Reading by Nicholas Yialiades.