'Ladder of St. Augustine, The' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Saint Augustine! well hast thou said,
That of our vices we can frame
A ladder, if we will but tread
Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

All common things, each day's events,
That with the hour begin and end,
Our pleasures and our discontents,
Are rounds by which we may ascend.

The low desire, the base design,
That makes another's virtues less;
The revel of the ruddy wine,
And all occasions of excess;

The longing for ignoble things;
The strife for triumph more than truth;
The hardening of the heart, that brings
Irreverence for the dreams of youth;

All thoughts of ill; all evil deeds,
That have their root in thoughts of ill;
Whatever hinders or impedes
The action of the nobler will;--

All these must first be trampled down
Beneath our feet, if we would gain
In the bright fields of fair renown
The right of eminent domain.

We have not wings, we cannot soar;
But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone
That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known,
Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear
Their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear
As we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

Standing on what too long we bore
With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern--unseen before--
A path to higher destinies.

Nor deem the irrevocable Past,
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
To something nobler we attain.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Ladder of St. Augustine by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

What does it mean to climb a ladder? And what kind of ladder would a saint climb? These are the questions that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Ladder of St. Augustine" asks us to ponder. The title alone suggests that this is a poem about spiritual ascent, and the speaker's use of the first person plural ("we") invites us to join in the climb.

Form and Structure

Before we begin our ascent, let's take a moment to appreciate the poem's form and structure. "The Ladder of St. Augustine" consists of nine stanzas, each with four lines. The rhyme scheme is ABAB, and the meter is iambic tetrameter (four iambs per line). This gives the poem a neat and orderly feel, like the rungs of a ladder. The regularity of the form also contrasts with the irregularity of the content, as we shall see.

Imagery and Symbolism

The poem begins with a vivid image:

Saint Augustine! well hast thou said, That of our vices we can frame A ladder, if we will but tread Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

The image of a ladder made out of vices is both surprising and intriguing. How can something as negative as a vice be used to climb upward? And yet, the speaker assures us that it is possible, if we "will but tread" on our own shameful deeds. Here, the ladder is a symbol of personal growth and self-improvement. It is also a symbol of the spiritual life, which requires effort and discipline.

As the poem continues, the ladder symbol is extended and elaborated on. We are told that the ladder has "a brighter side" and a "darker side," and that we must climb both in order to reach the top. The brighter side represents the virtues we must cultivate, such as faith, hope, and love. The darker side represents the sins we must overcome, such as pride, envy, and anger. The ladder is thus a symbol of the human condition, with its mixture of light and darkness.

Another important symbol in the poem is the "cup of water" that St. Augustine is said to have given to a beggar. This story is based on an actual incident from Augustine's life, in which he recognized Christ in the guise of a beggar and gave him a drink of water. The cup of water thus becomes a symbol of charity and compassion, as well as a reminder of the divine presence in all things.

Themes and Meanings

So what is the poem ultimately about? On one level, it is a tribute to St. Augustine, who is revered in Christian tradition as one of the greatest theologians and philosophers of all time. Longfellow's poem celebrates Augustine's wisdom and insight, as well as his humility and compassion.

On a deeper level, the poem is about the spiritual journey that each of us must undertake. The ladder of vices and virtues represents the path of self-discovery and self-transcendence that leads to the divine. The climb is difficult and arduous, and we are likely to stumble and fall along the way. But if we persevere, we will eventually reach the top and be united with God.

The cup of water also reminds us that the spiritual journey is not just about personal salvation, but about serving others. We must be willing to recognize the divine in everyone we meet, and to offer them our love and compassion.


In conclusion, "The Ladder of St. Augustine" is a poem that invites us to join in the spiritual climb. It is a poem that challenges us to look at our own vices and virtues, and to strive for self-improvement. It is a poem that celebrates the wisdom and compassion of St. Augustine, and reminds us of the divine presence in all things. And it is a poem that ultimately offers hope and inspiration for our own spiritual journey.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Poetry Ladder of St. Augustine is a classic poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This poem is a beautiful and inspiring piece of literature that has been enjoyed by generations of readers. In this analysis, we will explore the meaning and significance of this poem, as well as the literary devices used by Longfellow to create such a powerful piece of writing.

The poem begins with the line, "Saint Augustine! well hast thou said, That of our vices we can frame." This line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is a reflection on the human condition and the struggle to overcome our flaws and weaknesses. Longfellow is drawing on the wisdom of St. Augustine, a Christian theologian and philosopher who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Augustine believed that humans are inherently flawed and that we must strive to overcome our weaknesses in order to live a virtuous life.

The next few lines of the poem describe a ladder that leads to heaven. This ladder represents the journey that we must take in order to overcome our vices and reach a state of spiritual enlightenment. Longfellow writes, "A ladder, mounting through the air, And bright with beckoning angels' feet!" This image of angels beckoning us to climb the ladder is a powerful one, and it speaks to the idea that we are not alone in our struggle to overcome our flaws.

As the poem continues, Longfellow describes the different levels of the ladder. Each level represents a different virtue that we must cultivate in order to climb higher. The first level is "Humility, that low, sweet root, From which all heavenly virtues shoot." Humility is the foundation of all other virtues, and it is only by recognizing our own weaknesses and limitations that we can begin to grow and improve.

The second level of the ladder is "Charity, with love and light, Leading us upward to the height." Charity, or love for others, is another essential virtue that we must cultivate in order to climb higher on the ladder. Longfellow writes that charity "gives to the poor, forgives the offender, and rears the fallen." This is a powerful reminder that we must not only love those who are easy to love, but also those who are difficult or even our enemies.

The third level of the ladder is "Patience, that blending of the soul With God's serene and steadfast whole." Patience is the virtue that allows us to endure difficulties and hardships without losing hope or faith. Longfellow writes that patience "bears with all things, trusts in all, hopes for all, endures all." This is a reminder that we must be patient with ourselves and with others, and that we must trust in God's plan even when things seem difficult or uncertain.

The fourth level of the ladder is "Peace, that calm and holy mood, Which steals upon the solitude." Peace is the virtue that allows us to find inner calm and tranquility, even in the midst of chaos and turmoil. Longfellow writes that peace "folds the wings of every fear, And smooths the brow, and dries the tear." This is a reminder that we must cultivate inner peace in order to be able to face the challenges of life with courage and grace.

The fifth and final level of the ladder is "Joy, that lifts the spirit up, And fills it with a heavenly cup." Joy is the culmination of all the other virtues, and it is the reward for a life well-lived. Longfellow writes that joy "gives us wings, and makes us light, Dancing with the stars of night." This is a beautiful image of the joy and freedom that comes from living a virtuous life.

In conclusion, The Poetry Ladder of St. Augustine is a beautiful and inspiring poem that speaks to the human condition and the struggle to overcome our flaws and weaknesses. Longfellow uses powerful imagery and language to convey the importance of cultivating virtues such as humility, charity, patience, peace, and joy. This poem is a reminder that we are not alone in our struggle, and that we can find strength and inspiration in the wisdom of those who have come before us.

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