The poem is composed of three stanzas. Each stanza has four lines, making it a quatrain. The rhyme scheme is AABB throughout the poem. Due to the meter and rhyme scheme, each quatrain is composed of two couplets. It is worth noting the first two lines from the first two stanzas not only share the same rhymes, but the same end words as well.
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
The poem begins with the speaker shooting an arrow to an indeterminate location or target. Though the first couplet appears simplistic, along with the rest of the poem, it is actually open to more than one interpretation. Whether the arrow is literally shot or is used symbolically is unclear. Just as the speaker is unsure of the arrow’s destination, the reader is unsure of its meaning.
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
Presumably, "the sight" mentioned in the third line of the poem is the speaker’s. In these lines, the reader is told the arrow flew so quickly it was impossible to trace its trajectory with mere sight. This intimates a loss of direction, the unknown, even confusion. This could mean the speaker lost his or her way. It could mean the speaker’s actions or words were not reciprocated or understood. Or, at the literal level, the arrow simply seemed to disappear from sight due to quick flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
The repetition of rhymes and the second line, along with the similarity between this couplet and the first in the poem, indicate the aforementioned arrow may have actually been symbolic. Just as the arrow was lost, the song of the speaker was lost. Songs can be full of sorrow, love, or any emotion. These lines imply the speaker of the poem either poured out his or her emotions. They could have simply been venting or the song was lost upon the person it was directed to. Perhaps, much like the arrows swift movement, the words that feel from the speaker’s lips were simply untraceable. It is important to be aware the meaning or feeling of these lines is not necessarily a negative one.
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
The last couplet of the second stanza affirms the notion that song is simply untraceable. The speaker does not necessarily have a negative feeling though the song or emotion may have been lost, like the arrow. It is impossible to follow something that moves much faster than the human eye can keep up with. Some things are not meant to be followed or understood; they are simply meant to be appreciated or merely exist. Sometimes, a disoriented feeling can lead to an amazing destination. Though the speaker did not know where the arrow landed, there is the possibility it struck the perfect target.
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
These two lines support the idea the arrow could have possibly hit the perfect target. Though the speaker was unsure of its location for a period of time, it was eventually found. The arrow is still whole, meaning it was not damaged when it was absent from the speaker’s field of view. Whether the arrow was a weapon or protection and strength, it served its purpose. As a weapon, it pierced the trunk of the tree. This is symbolic of actions or words that cause pain to others. As a feature of protection and strength, it can be symbolic of a life journey.
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
The ending couplet of the poem is lovely and gives off a positive, light feeling. Just as the arrow found its place, the speaker’s song did too. However, the song reached "the heart of a friend," something that is gratifying. Neither was lost forever, neither was damaged or broken. Both the arrow and the song followed the path they were meant to and arrived at the proper destination. Whether the arrow and song were positive or negative, they were not left with incomplete journeys. Indeed, if the arrow is conveyed as a weapon (hurtful words or actions), it can have also landed in and wounded the heart of a friend. In any case, the closing couplet of the poem creates a feeling of completion.
The poem describes, in a sense, the journey of a song and an arrow. Both are sent into the air, both are "lost" by the speaker, and both eventually arrive at their destination. In reality, it is the speaker that must catch up the whereabouts of the arrow and song. Though the meaning of the arrow and the emotions behind it can be interpreted in more than one way, there is always one conclusion: there is an end to it all. The arrow, and song, both reach something or someone.
The poem indicates and overarching theme of life, specifically the journey one takes in life and the consequences of our actions. Whatever a person says and does is not empty or pointless, even if we think it might be. Words and actions have the power to hurt, uplift, and comfort. Whether these actions and words are inflicted on another person or on oneself, eventually they will reach a "destination." There is a purpose for everything. Similarly to the speaker losing track of the arrow and song for a period of time, we may lose track of what we have said and done. It may take a mere few hours or decades of our lives, but eventually we will see what has come from what we have done.