Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Charles Sumner

December 7, 2011

Charles Sumner, the lawyer, abolitionist and US Senator, was Longfellow’s closest friend. Sumner’s death in March of 1874 was a particularly hard for Longfellow to take, as evidenced from a note in his diary written on April 2 of that year:“I have been trying to write something about Sumner, but to little purpose. I cannot collect my faculties.” He was finally able to pen a fitting tribute to a great friend and a national hero, which was first published in January of 1875.

“Charles Sumner”

Garlands upon his grave
And flowers upon his hearse,
And to the tender heart and brave
The tribute of this verse.

His was the troubled life,
The conflict and the pain,
The grief, the bitterness of strife,
The honor without stain.

Like Winkelried, he took
Into his manly breast
The sheaf of hostile spears, and broke
A path for the oppressed.

Then from the fatal field
Upon a nation’s heart
Borne like a warrior on his shield!–
So should the brave depart.

Death takes us by surprise,
And stays our hurrying feet;
The great design unfinished lies,
Our lives are incomplete.

But in the dark unknown
Perfect their circles seem,
Even as a bridge’s arch of stone
Is rounded in the stream.

Alike are life and death,
When life in death survives,
And the uninterrupted breath
Inspires a thousand lives.

Were a star quenched on high,
For ages would its light,
Still travelling downward from the sky,
Shine on our mortal sight.

So when a great man dies,
For years beyond our ken,
The light he leaves behind him lies
Upon the paths of men.

Charles Sumner (1811 – 1874) is buried in Lot 2447 on Arethusa Path. 


  1. Susan Zawalich says:

    I read this for the first time today and was particularly moved by the last five verses, a wonderful statement of the great circle of life and death and the spirit which lingers and communicates going forward…a wonderful astral reference, the bridge mirrored in the pond, as it is over by Auburn Lake, all together a loving tribute to a friend and a wonderful meditation on the relation of life, death, and memory. Thank you for posting this!

    Susan Zawalich

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