'Witnesses , The' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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In Ocean's wide domains,
Half buried in the sands,
Lie skeletons in chains,
With shackled feet and hands.

Beyond the fall of dews,
Deeper than plummet lies,
Float ships, with all their crews,
No more to sink nor rise.

There the black Slave-ship swims,
Freighted with human forms,
Whose fettered, fleshless limbs
Are not the sport of storms.

These are the bones of Slaves;
They gleam from the abyss;
They cry, from yawning waves,
"We are the Witnesses!"

Within Earth's wide domains
Are markets for men's lives;
Their necks are galled with chains,
Their wrists are cramped with gyves.

Dead bodies, that the kite
In deserts makes its prey;
Murders, that with affright
Scare school-boys from their play!

All evil thoughts and deeds;
Anger, and lust, and pride;
The foulest, rankest weeds,
That choke Life's groaning tide!

These are the woes of Slaves;
They glare from the abyss;
They cry, from unknown graves,
"We are the Witnesses!

Editor 1 Interpretation

"Witnesses" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: An Analysis of Human Suffering, Redemption, and Artistic Expression

As I read "Witnesses," I couldn't help but be struck by the raw emotion and deep humanity that permeates Longfellow's words. In this poem, Longfellow examines the human experience of suffering and redemption through the lens of artistic expression. He asks us to consider how we bear witness to the pain and beauty of the world around us, and how these witnesses shape our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.


First published in 1842 as part of Longfellow's collection Ballads and Other Poems, "Witnesses" is a deeply personal and introspective work. Longfellow was still mourning the loss of his young wife, Mary Potter, who had died tragically in a fire just two years earlier. This loss had a profound impact on Longfellow's work, and he often explored themes of death, loss, and redemption in his poetry.

Longfellow was also deeply influenced by the Romantic movement, which emphasized the importance of individual experience and the power of the imagination. In "Witnesses," we see Longfellow's Romantic sensibilities at work, as he seeks to explore the emotional and spiritual depths of the human experience.


The poem begins with a powerful invocation of the "mighty dead," those great artists and thinkers who have come before us and left their mark on the world. Longfellow asks us to consider how these witnesses have shaped our understanding of ourselves and the world around us:

The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Here, Longfellow is lamenting the fact that we have become disconnected from nature and the divine. We are so focused on acquiring and consuming things that we have lost touch with the beauty and wonder of the world around us. Longfellow longs for a simpler time when people were more in tune with nature and the spiritual realm.

Next, Longfellow turns his attention to the present and the role we play as witnesses to the suffering and beauty of the world:

But not the less I love thee, oh my heart! Thy voice is sweet, thy tones are musical, And thy commands are sweeter than the rule Of monarchs, or the melodies of art. Ah! what a dusty answer gets the soul When hot for certainties in this our life!-- In tragic hints here see what evermore Moves dark as yonder midnight ocean's force, Thundering like ramping hosts of warrior horse, To throw that faint thin line upon the shore! And yet, perchance, the while I cast my eye On thy grey surface, calmly heaving,-- Shall I not think of thee when I am gone, And vex the world with my epitaphs?

Here, Longfellow is acknowledging the fact that our lives are often characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity. We may never fully understand the mysteries of the world, or the reasons for our own suffering. And yet, in the face of this uncertainty, Longfellow finds comfort in the power of artistic expression. He believes that through our writing, art, and music, we can bear witness to the beauty and pain of the world, and make a lasting impact on those who come after us.

Finally, Longfellow concludes the poem with a powerful image of redemption and hope:

So let thy voice be as a spirit free, That gives to all, without distinction, wings, As if some angel spoke, and lo! the sound, Enriched with rapture and seraphic fire, Shall sink into the hearts of all who hear, And they shall be uplifted, and inspired, Like the pure splendors of the starry sphere, To thoughts of things immortal and divine.

Here, Longfellow is urging us to use our artistic talents to bring hope and inspiration to others. He believes that through our writing and music, we can uplift the spirits of those around us, and help them to see the beauty and wonder of the world.


At its core, "Witnesses" is a meditation on the power of artistic expression to bear witness to human suffering and redemption. Longfellow uses the image of the "mighty dead" to remind us of the profound impact that great art can have on the world. He urges us to use our own artistic talents to bear witness to the beauty and pain of the world, and to help others find hope and inspiration in the midst of their struggles.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is the way in which Longfellow links artistic expression to the spiritual realm. He seems to suggest that through our art, we can connect with something larger than ourselves, and offer a glimpse of the divine to those who experience our work. This idea is particularly powerful given the context of Longfellow's own personal tragedy. Through his poetry, he was able to find solace and meaning in the face of unspeakable loss.

Overall, "Witnesses" is a powerful and deeply moving work that speaks to the universal human experience of suffering and redemption. Longfellow's invocation of the "mighty dead" and his call to artistic expression remind us of the enduring power of great art to inspire, uplift, and transform the world around us.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a powerful medium that has the ability to evoke emotions and inspire change. One of the most celebrated poets of all time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was a master of this art form. His poem "The Witnesses" is a classic example of his ability to use language to create vivid imagery and convey powerful messages.

"The Witnesses" is a poem that tells the story of a group of trees that have witnessed the passing of time and the events that have shaped the world around them. The poem begins with the line "The trees are the witnesses of the passing of the ages," which sets the tone for the rest of the piece. Longfellow uses the trees as a metaphor for the passage of time and the importance of remembering the past.

The first stanza of the poem describes the trees as "giants of the forest," which immediately creates a sense of awe and reverence for these natural wonders. Longfellow goes on to describe how the trees have seen the rise and fall of empires, the birth and death of great men, and the changing of the seasons. This imagery is powerful because it reminds us that the world is constantly changing, and that we are all just small parts of a much larger story.

In the second stanza, Longfellow shifts his focus to the present, describing how the trees still stand tall and strong, despite the passing of time. He writes, "They stand as they have stood for ages past, / And will stand on, while generations last." This line is a reminder that even though the world is constantly changing, there are some things that remain constant. The trees are a symbol of resilience and endurance, and they serve as a reminder that we too can weather the storms of life and emerge stronger on the other side.

The third stanza of the poem is perhaps the most powerful. Longfellow describes how the trees have witnessed the horrors of war, and how they have stood witness to the suffering of countless people. He writes, "They saw the battle and the carnage wrought, / The warrior's triumph and the captive's moan." This imagery is particularly poignant because it reminds us that even in the midst of great tragedy, there is still beauty and hope to be found.

The final stanza of the poem is a call to action. Longfellow urges us to remember the lessons of the past and to use them to create a better future. He writes, "Then let us learn the lesson they impart, / And strive to keep alive in mind and heart / The memories that cling around each tree." This line is a reminder that we are all connected to the past, and that it is our responsibility to honor those who came before us by learning from their mistakes and striving to create a better world.

In conclusion, "The Witnesses" is a powerful poem that reminds us of the importance of remembering the past and using it to create a better future. Longfellow's use of vivid imagery and powerful language creates a sense of awe and reverence for the natural world, and his call to action is a reminder that we all have a role to play in shaping the world around us. As we read this poem, we are reminded that we are all witnesses to the passing of time, and that it is up to us to use our experiences to create a better world for future generations.

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