Commentary on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Fragments”


October 22, 1838.

Neglected record of a mind neglected,
Unto what “lets and stops” art thou subjected!
The day with all its toils and occupations,
The night with its reflections and sensations,
The future, and the present, and the past,–
All I remember, feel, and hope at last,
All shapes of joy and sorrow, as they pass,–
Find but a dusty image in this glass.

August 18, 1847.

O faithful, indefatigable tides,
That evermore upon God’s errands go,–
Now seaward bearing tidings of the land,–
Now landward bearing tidings of the sea,–
And filling every frith and estuary,
Each arm of the great sea, each little creek,
Each thread and filament of water-courses,
Full with your ministration of delight!
Under the rafters of this wooden bridge
I see you come and go; sometimes in haste
To reach your journey’s end, which being done
With feet unrested ye return again
And recommence the never-ending task;
Patient, whatever burdens ye may bear,
And fretted only by the impeding rocks.

December 18, 1847.

Soft through the silent air descend the feathery snow-flakes;
White are the distant hills, white are the neighboring fields;
Only the marshes are brown, and the river rolling among them
Weareth the leaden hue seen in the eyes of the blind.

August 4, 1856.

        A lovely morning, without the glare of the sun, the sea in great
commotion, chafing and foaming.

So from the bosom of darkness our days come roaring and gleaming,
       Chafe and break into foam, sink into darkness again.
But on the shores of Time each leaves some trace of its passage,
Though the succeeding wave washes it out from the sand.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes of memories and the procession of time through the imagery of his 1882 poem, “Fragments”.  Found within
the collection titled In the Harbor, Longfellow creates a unique structure, with stanzas separated by specific dates in time.  “In the Harbor, Ultima Thule—Partz 2 came out just after his death in 1882 and included his final composition, ‘The Bells of San Blas‘ (1882)” (Poetry Foundation).  As a composition written during the final years of his life, its overall reminiscent tone comes at no surprise.

Remarkably, this poem follows multiple forms, with each separate section having its own specific poetic form and verse.  This certainly sets it apart from the other similarly titled poem, “A Fragment” that can be found within In the Harbor as well.  The poem’s first section, headed with “October 22, 1838”, follows a regular “AABBCCDD” rhyme scheme within the space of a single eight lined stanza.  The imagery in this beginning part is largely abstract, keeping only with terms such as “reflections” and emotions like “joy” or “sadness”. It isn’t until the very last sentence that we find the first concrete object in the form of “a dusty image in the glass”.

Continuing on, the next segment is led with another date: “August 18, 1847”.  This section is significantly longer with a single fifteen lined stanza. Unlike the last part, there is no discernable rhyme scheme whatsoever.  It is also important to note the increased concreteness of content with a distinct relation between the land and sea. It becomes clear that here, the speaker is directly talking to someone, or perhaps to the sea itself.

The third section likewise begins with “December 18, 1847” a much closer date to the last section than the very first part had been before.  This part continues the landscape imagery that the second began, but this time focusing on the winter scenery instead. It comprises of a short four lined stanzas, but despite this the length of the lines themselves are noticeably increased.

The final section, “August 4, 1856” is again another sizable gap in time.  This section is the only to be made up of more than one stanza with at first a mere two lined stanza that is then followed by a larger four lined one.  The indents in this section are also interesting, as it almost follows a pattern in which every other line is indented. Content wise, this part appears to bring together the abstract from the beginning and the imagery of the middle.  Longfellow describes the churning of waves, constantly bringing our lives out of and back into the darkness it is originally born from. He reminisces, writing, “But on the shores of Time each leaves some trace of its passage, Through the succeeding wave washes it out from the sand.”  Memory and Time are at the forefront of Longfellow’s mind as he faces the immediacy of his death.

-Robert Sturtevant

Bibliography and Further Reading
“Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” Poetry Foundation.

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