Poetry Sunday: Decoration Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When I was a child growing up, the holiday that we observe on Monday was called Decoration Day. It was a day to wear a poppy and to take flowers and/or flags to decorate the graves of loved ones who had fallen in wars. The name of the holiday was officially changed to Memorial Day in 1967 and the law took effect at the federal level in 1971.

Decoration Day was established three years after the end of our Civil War as a day to honor the war dead and to decorate their graves. At the time that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived, in the late nineteenth century, the holiday was still commonly called Decoration Day. He wrote this poem in commemoration of it. 


Decoration Day

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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. 

Comments

  1. Longfellow certainly knew what he was writing about (also with the poem I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day) given that his son came close to dying of wounds he suffered while fighting for the Union Army during the Civil War. The last stanza especially is so, so true.

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    1. I think one can sense from the poem that the war was deeply personal for him.

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  2. Maybe I misremember but I was a kid in the 50s and early 60s and I thought it was called Memorial Day then. The mother across our street was like my second mother, her name was Mauriel and we would call it Mauriel Day! Our families always had a barbeque together and her daughter was my best friend. By 1967 I was away in college. Hm.

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    Replies
    1. I believe it was always called by both names and it may have depended on what part of the country you were in as to which name was more commonly used, but it didn't officially become Memorial Day nation-wide until 1971.

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  3. I like Decoration Day... and the poem which I haven't read before. Cheers

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    Replies
    1. It's an important day and I think Longfellow captured that.

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  4. Only Longfellow can make the eternal rest of soldiers sound pretty. Solemn and fitting.

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