A Memorial Day Poem by Longfellow, From The Atlantic, June 1882

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If there was ever such a thing as an Atlantic poet laureate, the honors would have to go to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, hands down. He was already the most renowned American poet of his day when he helped to found the magazine in 1857. He contributed more poems to the Atlantic's pages than anyone then or since, by orders of magnitude. He was the author (originally unsigned, though who else could it have been?) of one of the most illustrious poems to appear in any American periodical, the stirring patriotic ode "Paul Revere's Ride" (January 1861) that assured he would be read and recited and downloaded for generations to come.

Longfellow's "Decoration Day" may not rank among his canonic Atlantic verse, but it imparts a burnished poignancy all its own. In the solemn, hymn-like strains that were a hallmark of the country's foremost "Fireside Poet," the poem pays tribute to what was then a new form of civic observance: a day set aside to commemorate those who had perished in the Civil War by placing flags and flowers on soldiers' graves, a custom that gradually gave rise to our modern Memorial Day honoring all who give their lives in military service. Its first readers likely felt an elegaic pang all the more acutely: by the time the poem circulated in the June 1882 Atlantic, it would have been national news that Longfellow had died just a few weeks earlier at his home in Cambridge, at the age of 75.


Decoration Day

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry's shot alarms!

Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannon's sudden roar,
Or the drum's redoubling beat.

But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.

All is repose and peace,
Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.

                              -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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David Barber is The Atlantic's poetry editor.

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