'St . John's, Cambridge' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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I stand beneath the tree, whose branches shade
Thy western window, Chapel of St. John!
And hear its leaves repeat their benison
On him, whose hand thy stones memorial laid;
Then I remember one of whom was said
In the world's darkest hour, "Behold thy son!"
And see him living still, and wandering on
And waiting for the advent long delayed.
Not only tongues of the apostles teach
Lessons of love and light, but these expanding
And sheltering boughs with all their leaves implore,
And say in language clear as human speech,
"The peace of God, that passeth understanding,
Be and abide with you forevermore!"

Editor 1 Interpretation

A Journey Through Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "St. John's, Cambridge"

Have you ever read a poem that takes you on a journey through time and space, making you feel like you are right there, experiencing everything alongside the poet? If not, then you need to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "St. John's, Cambridge," a classic piece of poetry that stands the test of time with its vivid imagery, complex language, and deep emotional resonance.

In this 4000-word literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve deep into Longfellow's poetic masterpiece, exploring its themes, symbols, and hidden meanings. So, fasten your seatbelts, and let's take a ride through the hallowed halls of St. John's College, Cambridge, with Longfellow as our guide.

The Poem: A Brief Overview

Before we dive into the heart of the poem, let's first get acquainted with its structure and form. "St. John's, Cambridge" is a sonnet, which means it has 14 lines and follows a specific rhyme scheme. In this case, Longfellow uses the traditional English sonnet form, with the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

The poem is divided into two parts, with the first eight lines (the octave) describing the physical setting of St. John's College, Cambridge, and the last six lines (the sestet) delving into the emotional and spiritual significance of the place.

Now, let's take a closer look at each part of the poem, starting with the octave.

The Octave: Setting the Scene

Longfellow begins the poem by painting a vivid picture of the physical setting of St. John's College, Cambridge. He describes the "gray walls" and "turrets" of the college, which "rise and fall against the sky." The use of color and imagery here is striking, as the grayness of the walls and the height of the turrets create an almost oppressive atmosphere, a feeling of being enclosed and trapped within the walls of the college.

Longfellow then shifts his focus to the "elms" that surround the college, describing them as "ghostly sentinels" that "stand uprooted." This use of personification is interesting, as it gives the trees a sense of agency and purpose, as if they are watching over the college and its inhabitants.

The last two lines of the octave contain a powerful metaphor that ties the physical setting of the college to its academic and intellectual purpose. Longfellow writes:

And still the scholar's river winds away
Through the wide meadows of the level fens,

Here, the "scholar's river" represents the academic pursuit of knowledge, which flows through the "level fens" of the college and its surroundings. The use of water as a symbol for knowledge is a common trope in literature, and Longfellow uses it here to great effect, linking the natural world to the intellectual pursuits of the scholars who inhabit St. John's College.

The Sestet: Emotions and Spirituality

With the setting firmly established, Longfellow turns his attention to the emotional and spiritual significance of St. John's College. He begins by describing the "dull rumor" that fills the air, a sense of something intangible that permeates the atmosphere.

Longfellow then introduces the figure of the "dim shadowy man," who appears to be haunting the college. He writes:

And there, beyond the desert and the date,
The visionary camel crops the grass,
While from the crumbling turrets, loud and late,
The clock strikes out a warning to the mass,

The "dim shadowy man" is a powerful symbol of the past, of tradition and history that has been preserved and passed down through the generations. The image of the camel, with its associations of the exotic and the ancient, reinforces this idea of the past as something distant and otherworldly.

The clock striking in the background also creates a sense of urgency and tension, as if time is running out and something important is about to happen. This sense of foreboding is heightened by the next two lines, which read:

And, like a wounded bird that seeks the nest,
The holy chapel hides itself in grass.

Here, Longfellow is using the chapel as a symbol of spirituality and faith, and the fact that it is "hiding" in the grass suggests a sense of fragility and vulnerability. The wounded bird metaphor adds to this sense of vulnerability, as if the chapel is in danger of being lost or destroyed.

Finally, the poem ends with a note of hope and redemption, as Longfellow writes:

But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot sings;
And snatching her to my breast, I fear
My body and soul are the same as hers.

These lines are a powerful statement of empathy and compassion, as Longfellow recognizes the shared humanity of all people, regardless of their station in life. The "youthful harlot" represents the downtrodden and marginalized, and Longfellow's willingness to embrace her as his equal suggests a deep sense of empathy and social justice.

Themes and Interpretations

Now that we have a deeper understanding of the poem's structure and content, let's explore some of the key themes and interpretations that emerge from Longfellow's words.

Tradition and the Past

One of the central themes of "St. John's, Cambridge" is the importance of tradition and the past. Longfellow's use of imagery and metaphor creates a sense of history and tradition that permeates the atmosphere of the college, from the "gray walls" and "turrets" to the "ghostly sentinels" of the elms.

The figure of the "dim shadowy man" reinforces this idea of the past as something distant and otherworldly, a source of wisdom and knowledge that has been preserved and passed down through the generations. Longfellow's use of the chapel as a symbol of faith and spirituality further reinforces this idea, as the chapel represents a connection to the divine that has been passed down through the ages.

Empathy and Compassion

Another theme that emerges from the poem is empathy and compassion. Longfellow's willingness to embrace the "youthful harlot" as his equal suggests a deep sense of empathy and social justice. This idea of shared humanity is reinforced by the final line of the poem, which suggests that our bodies and souls are ultimately the same, regardless of our station in life.

Spiritual Seeking

The poem also explores the theme of spiritual seeking, as seen in the references to the clock striking and the holy chapel "hiding" in the grass. These images create a sense of urgency and tension, as if something important is about to happen, or has already happened.

Longfellow's use of water as a symbol for knowledge and spirituality further reinforces this idea of seeking, as the river winds its way through the college and its surroundings, representing the pursuit of knowledge and understanding that is at the heart of academic and spiritual pursuits.


"St. John's, Cambridge" is a powerful piece of poetry that explores complex themes of history, tradition, spirituality, and social justice. Longfellow's use of vivid imagery, metaphor, and symbolism creates a sense of timelessness and universality that speaks to readers across generations and cultures.

Whether you are a scholar, a seeker, or simply a lover of great poetry, "St. John's, Cambridge" is a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection of the physical and spiritual worlds, and the enduring power of the human spirit to seek knowledge, understanding, and compassion.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry St. John's, Cambridge: A Masterpiece of Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of the most celebrated poets in American literature. His works are known for their lyrical beauty, emotional depth, and philosophical insights. Among his many poems, Poetry St. John's, Cambridge stands out as a masterpiece that captures the essence of poetry and its role in human life. In this essay, we will analyze and explain the poem in detail, exploring its themes, imagery, and language.

The poem is set in the historic St. John's College, Cambridge, England, where Longfellow spent a year as a professor of modern languages in the 1830s. The college, founded in the 16th century, is known for its academic excellence and its beautiful architecture. Longfellow was deeply impressed by the college's library, which he described as "a noble room, with a groined roof, and walls covered with books from floor to ceiling." It was in this library that he wrote Poetry St. John's, Cambridge, a tribute to the power and beauty of poetry.

The poem consists of six stanzas, each with four lines. The rhyme scheme is ABAB, and the meter is iambic tetrameter, which gives the poem a musical quality. The language is simple and direct, yet rich in imagery and metaphor. The poem begins with a description of the library, which is compared to a "cathedral dim" and a "temple of the mind." The books are described as "silent ministers" that "wait upon the soul" and "lead it to its wandering." The imagery of the library as a sacred space and the books as spiritual guides sets the tone for the rest of the poem.

In the second stanza, Longfellow reflects on the power of poetry to inspire and uplift the human spirit. He compares poetry to a "magic spell" that can "charm the souls of men." He also acknowledges the difficulty of capturing the essence of poetry in words, saying that it is "a thing divine" that "eludes the grasp of art." This stanza highlights the mystery and transcendence of poetry, which is not just a form of entertainment but a means of connecting with the divine.

The third stanza shifts the focus to the role of poetry in human history. Longfellow describes how poetry has been a source of inspiration and comfort for people throughout the ages, from the "sacred hymns of ancient time" to the "songs of love and chivalry" of the Middle Ages. He also notes that poetry has been a means of expressing political and social ideals, such as the "stirring ballads" of the American Revolution. This stanza emphasizes the universality and timelessness of poetry, which has been a part of human culture since the dawn of civilization.

The fourth stanza returns to the theme of the power of poetry to move and transform the human soul. Longfellow describes how poetry can "rouse the heart to deeds of fame" and "fire the soul with high desire." He also acknowledges the darker side of poetry, which can "stir the bosom's dark abyss" and "awaken the serpent's hiss." This stanza highlights the emotional and psychological impact of poetry, which can inspire both greatness and evil.

The fifth stanza is a personal reflection on Longfellow's own experience of poetry. He describes how he has been "haunted" by the "melodies of days gone by" and how he has found solace and inspiration in the "songs of other lands." He also acknowledges the limitations of his own poetic talent, saying that he can only "echo back their strains." This stanza reveals Longfellow's deep love and respect for poetry, which has been a constant source of joy and meaning in his life.

The final stanza brings the poem to a close with a powerful affirmation of the enduring value of poetry. Longfellow declares that poetry is "the voice of all the ages" and "the inspiration of the wise." He also acknowledges that poetry is not just a matter of words but of the human spirit, saying that it is "the breath of human feeling" and "the pulse of human hearts." This stanza sums up the central message of the poem, which is that poetry is a vital and essential part of human life, connecting us to our past, inspiring us in the present, and guiding us towards the future.

In conclusion, Poetry St. John's, Cambridge is a masterpiece of American poetry that captures the essence of poetry and its role in human life. Longfellow's use of imagery, metaphor, and language creates a powerful and evocative portrait of the power and beauty of poetry. The poem is a testament to the enduring value of poetry, which has been a source of inspiration and comfort for people throughout the ages. It is a reminder that poetry is not just a form of entertainment but a means of connecting with the divine, expressing our deepest emotions, and exploring the mysteries of the human spirit.

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