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Paul Revere's Ride -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Fixing a rather startling omission in the poet list...
(Poem #172) Paul Revere's Ride
 Listen my children and you shall hear
 Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
 On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
 Hardly a man is now alive
 Who remembers that famous day and year.

 He said to his friend, "If the British march
 By land or sea from the town to-night,
 Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
 Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--
 One if by land, and two if by sea;
 And I on the opposite shore will be,
 Ready to ride and spread the alarm
 Through every Middlesex village and farm,
 For the country folk to be up and to arm."

 Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar
 Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
 Just as the moon rose over the bay,
 Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
 The Somerset, British man-of-war;
 A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
 Across the moon like a prison bar,
 And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
 By its own reflection in the tide.

 Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
 Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
 Till in the silence around him he hears
 The muster of men at the barrack door,
 The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
 And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
 Marching down to their boats on the shore.

 Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
 By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
 To the belfry chamber overhead,
 And startled the pigeons from their perch
 On the sombre rafters, that round him made
 Masses and moving shapes of shade,--
 By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
 To the highest window in the wall,
 Where he paused to listen and look down
 A moment on the roofs of the town
 And the moonlight flowing over all.

 Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
 In their night encampment on the hill,
 Wrapped in silence so deep and still
 That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread,
 The watchful night-wind, as it went
 Creeping along from tent to tent,
 And seeming to whisper, "All is well!"
 A moment only he feels the spell
 Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
 Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
 For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
 On a shadowy something far away,
 Where the river widens to meet the bay,--
 A line of black that bends and floats
 On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

 Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
 Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
 On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
 Now he patted his horse's side,
 Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
 Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
 And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
 But mostly he watched with eager search
 The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
 As it rose above the graves on the hill,
 Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
 And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height
 A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
 He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
 But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
 A second lamp in the belfry burns.

 A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
 A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
 And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
 Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
 That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
 The fate of a nation was riding that night;
 And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
 Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
 He has left the village and mounted the steep,
 And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
 Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
 And under the alders that skirt its edge,
 Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
 Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

 It was twelve by the village clock
 When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
 He heard the crowing of the cock,
 And the barking of the farmer's dog,
 And felt the damp of the river fog,
 That rises after the sun goes down.

 It was one by the village clock,
 When he galloped into Lexington.
 He saw the gilded weathercock
 Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
 And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
 Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
 As if they already stood aghast
 At the bloody work they would look upon.

 It was two by the village clock,
 When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
 He heard the bleating of the flock,
 And the twitter of birds among the trees,
 And felt the breath of the morning breeze
 Blowing over the meadow brown.
 And one was safe and asleep in his bed
 Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
 Who that day would be lying dead,
 Pierced by a British musket ball.

 You know the rest. In the books you have read
 How the British Regulars fired and fled,---
 How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
 From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
 Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
 Then crossing the fields to emerge again
 Under the trees at the turn of the road,
 And only pausing to fire and load.

 So through the night rode Paul Revere;
 And so through the night went his cry of alarm
 To every Middlesex village and farm,---
 A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
 A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
 And a word that shall echo for evermore!
 For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
 Through all our history, to the last,
 In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
 The people will waken and listen to hear
 The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
 And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I have no idea why it took so long to get around to Longfellow, since I do
enjoy his work. You'll definitely see more of him, but I thought I'd start
here with one of his most famous pieces.

This beautifully-written poem has all the elements that characterize good
narrative verse - a flowing metre, some excellent and evocative descriptive
bits[1] and above all a good story. Ironically enough, the very thoroughness
with which it has ingrained itself into the public consciousness have given
the lie to the opening verse - nearly every American now alive, and a good
part of the rest of the English speaking world, 'remember that famous day
and year', or at least the events that took place thereupon.

[1] By far the main reason I like the poem - every passing scene is vividly
described, yet so skilfully that nowhere is the momentum of the narrative
broken. Description and action blend together in a smoothly unfolding
tapestry of images that perfectly parallels the course of the ride.


Biography and Assessment:

There's an online biography at
<[broken link]>

A few relevant passages from the EB:

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth

 b. Feb. 27, 1807, Portland, Mass. [now in Maine], U.S.
 d. March 24, 1882, Cambridge, Mass.

 the most popular American poet in the 19th century.


The Tales of a Wayside Inn, modeled roughly on Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury
Tales and published in 1863, reveals his narrative gift. The first poem,
"Paul Revere's Ride," became a national favourite. Written in anapestic
tetrameter meant to suggest the galloping of a horse, this folk ballad
recalls a hero of the American Revolution and his famous "midnight ride" to
warn the Americans about the impending British raid on Concord, Mass. Though
its account of Revere's ride is historically inaccurate, the poem created an
American legend. Longfellow published in 1872 what he intended to be his
masterpiece, Christus: A Mystery, a trilogy dealing with Christianity from
its beginning. He followed this work with two fragmentary dramatic poems,
"Judas Maccabaeus" and "Michael Angelo." But his genius was not dramatic, as
he had demonstrated earlier in The Spanish Student (1843). Long after his
death in 1882, however, these neglected later works were seen to contain
some of his most effective writing.

During his lifetime Longfellow was loved and admired both at home and
abroad. In 1884 he was honoured by the placing of a memorial bust in Poets'
Corner of Westminster Abbey in London, the first American to be so
recognized. Sweetness, gentleness, simplicity, and a romantic vision shaded
by melancholy are the characteristic features of Longfellow's poetry. He
possessed great metrical skill, but he failed to capture the American spirit
like his great contemporary Walt Whitman, and his work generally lacks
emotional depth and imaginative power. Some years after Longfellow's death a
violent reaction set in against his verse as critics dismissed his
conventional high-minded sentiments and the gentle strain of Romanticism
that he had made so popular. This harsh critical assessment, which tried to
reduce him to the status of a mere hearthside rhymer, was perhaps as
unbalanced as the adulation he had received during his lifetime. Some of
Longfellow's sonnets and other lyrics are still among the finest in American
poetry, and Hiawatha, "The Wreck of the Hesperus," Evangeline, and "Paul
Revere's Ride" have become inseparable parts of the American heritage.
Longfellow's immense popularity helped raise the status of poetry in his
country, and he played an important part in bringing European cultural
traditions to American audiences.

34 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

susana nabor said...

I just want to know why this poem was written? What was the reason behind it?

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