Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
This is the first major image in the poem. Longfellow really wants us to focus on the exact time of day, that moment where day shifts into night. To drive this home, he makes "Night" into something like a character in this poem, and stages a big entrance for him.
Line 2: In this line, darkness falls down "from the wings of night." We won't get the rest of this image until the first stanza is over, but right away you get the picture, right? Night is turned into a giant bird, with huge dark wings. When you describe a concept like night using words that usually apply to living creatures, we call that personification.
The Eagle is introduced as another way of thinking of the night. As far as important poetic symbols go, the eagle is way up there. For thousands of years, poets have used this bird to represent power, strength, nobility… all that good stuff. So, when an eagle sweeps in at the beginning of this poem, it carries a lot of weight. Think how different it would be if Longfellow had picked a pigeon instead.
Line 4: Here Longfellow is comparing the way that darkness rolls down the sky to the way a feather drifts down from the wing of an eagle. We call that kind of comparison a simile. He's using this comparison to make us focus really intensely on the moment of twilight. It's this change in light that launches the whole poem, so he rolls out some big poetic tricks to give it extra impact.
Rain and Mist
The rain comes up a few times in this poem, both as a literal description of what's going on and as a metaphor for other things. We think there are a few good reasons for that. Think of the way rain nourishes growing things, the way it cleans the world. It can be dangerous for sure, but here it's a pretty soft, quiet presence, which fits with the mood of the poem. Mist also shows up along with the rain – it's part of the same idea, but there are also really important differences, as we'll see.
Line 6: Here, the rain just helps to set the mood. It's a rainy, misty night, and it's hard for the speaker to see the lights of the town. This gives things a quiet feel, maybe even a little dreamlike. It also makes us feel like maybe this is the kind of night where you wouldn't want to be wandering around outside – the perfect kind of night to head in and curl up with a book, which is exactly what the speaker is going to do.
Line 12: Now the rain and the mist are used as a simile, a way for the speaker to describe the difference between "sadness" and "sorrow." Basically, he's saying that being a little sad is different from feeling real sorrow. They are related, like cousins, but they don't mean the same thing. See the comparison? You know that mist is water from the sky, but you wouldn't call it rain. In the same way, our speaker is bummed out, but he wouldn't call that feeling "sorrow."
Line 27: There's no mist here, but he does use rain for one more simile. In this case, he's comparing the way that rain falls from a cloud to the way that poems come rushing out of the heart of a poet. It's maybe a little tricky, since that gushing heart thing (line 26) is already a metaphor (poems don't come out of your heart, right?). Still, you get the point. He's trying to give us an image of how powerful and natural and spontaneous poetry can be.
Here the speaker imagines that he can hear the footsteps of poets from the past. We think this is a really cool image for the traditions of poetry. In a way, these "grand old masters" become like ghosts in the attic. You can hear them, far away, but you can't quite see them.
Line 19: We think the idea of the past is an important part of this poem, and this might be the most vivid image we get of history. In a kind of spooky way, the poets of the past come alive here and haunt the speaker. We're not surprised that he doesn't want to hear their poems, and he seems a little creeped out to imagine them out there, walking around.
Corridors of Time
Another neat image of the past. For the speaker, time isn't just a single straight line, but a kind of mysterious set of corridors. We imagine a labyrinth, the kind of thing you'd see in a Tim Burton movie, full of creepy effects and strange creatures. Combine that with the footsteps echoing down these corridors, and you've got the ingredients for a scary movie. We're not saying Longfellow is trying to scare you exactly; it's just that this seems like an unusually vivid and spine-tingling image in the middle of a pretty quiet poem.
Line 20: In general terms, we'd call this a metaphor. Time isn't a place, it doesn't have any physical existence. When Longfellow says that time has corridors, he's creating an image in our minds, turning an idea into reality. We think that works pretty well here. It helps us to see how important time and history is in this poem, and helps it to really stick in our heads.
You know how it can be fun to watch a really tear-jerking romantic comedy? Or maybe there's a sad song that makes you cry, but the crying always feels kind of good. Well, folks in the nineteenth century loved that kind of thing. They bought tons of sentimental books and poems, and read and reread the sad scenes. So when Longfellow brings up flowing human tears, he's tapping into a major theme.
Line 28: The speaker has already told us that the poem he wants is one that came gushing out of the poet's heart. Now he compares that kind of emotional poetry writing to crying tears. In this simile, the tears are like the poem, and they come out of the eyelid, which is like the heart. Kind of sappy, we know, but people really loved this kind of thing.
This is a really interesting final image. We've spent the whole poem in a sort of cozy, sleepy homey atmosphere. Now all of a sudden these Arabs creep in at the end of the poem. Longfellow makes them sound like nomads, who "fold their tents" and carry them away with them. We imagine hot deserts under the bright sun and silent men and women in long robes. It's sort of a neat trick, sweeping us off to this exotic world at the last possible moment.
Line 44: The Arabs are part of the final simile in the poem. The speaker is comparing the way your worries disappear at the end of the day to the way that Arab tribesmen pack up their belongings and leave their camp. It's a sort of cool and vivid way of describing the process of unwinding and forgetting about your troubles.